By Darryl G. Smart
Ever since Zach Zona became a competitive swimmer, he’s always wanted to push himself as far as he can go. During that journey, the para swimmer from Waterford has not only continuously raised his own standards on the clock, he has proudly represented Canada.
About 10 years later, Zona will now compete at the 2021 Paralympic Games in Tokyo, when it takes place August 24 to September 5.
“I’m extremely excited. I’ve been working hard and pushing towards this for a long time,” Zona siad from Montreal, where he trains and attends Concordia University. “To finally have this opportunity is really nice. I don’t think it has sunk in quite yet. Probably because there wasn’t an in-person competition. But once we get into staging and training camp before we head to Japan it will be a bit more.”
The decision to provisionally nominate the athletes was made after the Paralympic Swimming Trials, originally scheduled for May 24-28 in Toronto, were cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. After Swimming Canada provisionally named Zona and six others early, the two female and two male positions remaining on the team were filled by reviewing training logs and data, as well as a video-recorded time trial performance, from eligible swimmer
“It was pretty weird waking up one morning and reading an email saying that you made the team because of something you did in 2019,” Zona, 22, said. “It was a pretty crazy process and I’m glad I didn’t have to worry about that. It would have been a really tough situation.
“I wasn’t expecting that obviously (named in the first wave). I was preparing to put down a fast time that would have put me on the team regardless,” he said. “It was nice to have it out of the way, to have some certainty, and be able to focus on the long term instead of hoping to have an opportunity to race.”
Since being named to Team Canada, the outpouring of support from friends, family and members of the Norfolk Hammerheads has been amazing. It’s something he’s going to carry with him to Tokyo.
As for his journey to Tokyo, Zona said it started in 2012.
“That was the first time it kind of came to my mind,” Zona said. “I went to trials. I didn’t have a shot at making the team at that point. Being there and seeing the other athletes racing. I realized it’s something that wasn’t unattainable.”
So Zona trained, got stronger and faster with every passing year.
In 2013, Zona was selected to attend Swimming Canada’s 2013-14 Outreach Camp Programs. He was one of only 10 swimmers selected from across Canada. Also in 2013, Zona represented Ontario at the Canada Games in Sherbrooke, Que. He earned bronze medals in the 100m butterfly and 400m freestyle, was fourth in the 100m breaststroke and fifth in both the 50m freestyle and 100m freestyle.
At age 15, Zona reached four finals at the 2014 Pan Pacific Para-swimming Championships, which was his first national team assignment. Zona was fourth in the 400m freestyle, fifth in the 100m freestyle and sixth in both the 100m butterfly and 50m freestyle.
2015 was a huge year for Zona. He reached the podium in three events at the Speedo Can Am Para-swimming Championships in Toronto. He then swam in four individual events at his first IPC Swimming World Championships in Glasgow, Scotland. He topped it all off winning bronze in the 400m freestyle, 100m butterfly and 200m individual medley at the 2015 Toronto Parapan Am Games. He was also a member of the 4×100m freestyle relay team that won silver and set a Canadian record.
“Being on that stage was amazing, especially since it was so close to home,” Zona said. “If there was something I took from that, it was an enjoyment of swimming at big events.There were large crowds there, which was very different. Usually it’s just swimmers and parents. I really enjoyed that environment where everyone was cheering for you. I really felt that energy.”
In 2016, he came very close to cracking the Paralympic team that went to Rio. And like always, he took it all in stride.
“I’m not too sure how close I was officially. I had a good race at trials but there were others that were faster,” Zona said. “It was disappointing but I had some great swims with a couple of best results. It wasn’t crushing. It was something to grow on. Being in that time and ninth in the world, I knew I was there. So I just had to keep working at it and training hard.”
Which is exactly what he’s done. And he credits a number of things for those strides he’s taken.
“I’ve been getting stronger and quicker because I’ve been taking nutrition and recovery a little more seriously,” Zona said. “The difference between being 16 and 20 is also a factor. I’ve matured being away from home. It’s been helpful being more independent and knowing what’s best for me.”
He also added training in Montreal with other para swimmers with the same goal has been a huge boost.
“We have a great coaching staff and support staff,” Zona said. “These people try to find every edge you can to get better.”
Swimming around the world and chasing that Paralympic dream, Zona had a number of impressive showings at the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games and Pan Pacific Para Swimming Championships, before taking part in the London 2019 World Para Swimming Championships, Zona’s best performance came in the 400m freestyle S8, where he reached the final and finished seventh. He also finished ninth in the 200m individual medley SM8.
At the 2019 Canadian Swimming Trials in Toronto, Zona captured silver in the 400m freestyle multi-class final thanks to a personal-best time. That performance set him up for his selection to the 2021 Tokyo Paralympic team. Zona and his teammates meet in British Columbia at the beginning of August for a training camp before making the trip to Japan on August 19. Six days later the swimming events begin.
“I want to be in the finals,” Zona said. “It’s been tough because we haven’t been able to race in a year and a half so it’s tough to see where you stand. But my goal is to be in that top eight. It’s going to be really cool to be part of and take in. Just being in the village is going to be a great experience. I can’t wait.”