Zach Zona could have made his Paralympic debut in 2016, but the swimmer from Waterford knew he wasn’t ready.
So when Swimming Canada offered him a newly open spot on the team bound for Rio de Janeiro after the Russian delegation was suspended for doping, Zona declined.
“I hadn’t been training for a month because my season was over at that point, so there was just no way I was going to be ready to put down a decent swim that I would be happy with,” said Zona, 22, on the phone Wednesday from Swimming Canada’s training facility in Vancouver.
Five years later, Zona is faster, stronger and on the cusp of realizing his Paralympic dream at the 2020 Paralympics Games in Tokyo, Japan. He is competing in one event, the 400-metre freestyle swim, and is gunning for a time of 4:40 or faster.
“I want to be hitting a best time and be in the final — so in the top eight and going a lifetime best,” he said.
Zona’s coach, Mike Thompson from Swimming Canada’s High Performance Training Centre in Montreal, likes Zona’s chances in Tokyo.
“Getting (to the Paralympics), it’s a pretty big deal,” Thompson said.
“It certainly pays off all the work he’s done. He wanted to go when he was ready, and I feel like accepting the team this time is a pretty big signal that he’s ready to do something special.”
Swimming Canada did not hold the usual Paralympic qualifiers due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, as first reported by Smart Sports Network in July, Zona was added to Team Canada on the strength of his results at the 2019 World Para Swimming Championship in London, England, where he placed seventh in the 400-metre freestyle.
That year he also set a personal best in the 400 at the Canadian Swimming Trials in Etobicoke and was named Swim Ontario Para Swimmer of the Year.
While a Paralympic rookie, Zona has been competing internationally since he was a teenager.
As a 15-year-old, he reached the finals in four events at the 2014 Pan Pacific Para Swimming Championships, and two years later won three individual bronze medals and a team silver at the 2015 Toronto Parapan Am Games.
Zona got a preview of Paralympic life while staying in the athletes’ village at the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games in Australia, where he finished fifth in the 200-metre individual medley.
“That gave him a good taste of what it’s like to race in front of 15,000 people,” Thompson said.
Zona said he is feeling confident as he prepares to leave for Tokyo on Thursday, especially as he will have almost a week before his race to acclimatize to the time change and “get into the flow and rhythm of things.”
Watching last month’s Olympic swimming events gave him valuable insight into how to mentally approach his own performance.
“It looked like the people who were able to show up and enjoy what they were doing were having a better time overall. A lot of people who were swimming fast were also living in the moment,” he said.
“It’s a bigger event, but at the end of the day you’re still swimming a race. It’s just a different venue.”
Cheering Zona on from afar will be his family in Waterford, and coaches and teammates from the Norfolk Hammerheads Aquatic Club, where Zona honed his craft under the tutelage of coaches Lisa Anderson and Trent McNicol.
“Zach was one of the best-prepared athletes to come into the Centre,” said Thompson, who has coached Zona since 2016.
“Trent and Lisa did a great job not only getting Zach aerobically fit and strong enough to get there, but he was one of the more reliable athletes when he arrived.”
Zona, who stands an even five feet, was born with a congenital limb deficiency that caused his right hand to be impaired and shortened the femur bones in both legs. He got serious about swimming at age 10 as a low-impact sport that was easy on his joints and at which he could excel.
“It was also something where I could keep up with other kids my age,” he said. “That wasn’t possible anymore with sports like soccer and baseball. But being in the water I could still train with people in my own age group, which was very nice.”
When not in the pool, Zona attends classes at Concordia University in Montreal as a “very part-time” civil engineering student.
He said his success representing Canada as an athlete has translated to other areas of his life.
“It’s really helped to realize outside the water that perseverance does pay off,” Zona said.
“Sometimes it’s not always enjoyable. Sometimes it’s not what you want to be doing. But putting the work in, you do get results.”
J.P. Antonacci, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator