Zachary Lokken was loud and clear about his goals for this weekend’s kickoff of the International Canoe Federation’s World Cup cycle and next month’s Pan-American Games in Lima, Peru. Even from his training site in the middle of the Pyrenees Mountains in France.
The 25-year-old Durango native, who has moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, for training, is set to begin a month-long international trek that will take him to three continents, four countries and thousands of miles. He is hopeful it will culminate with a podium finish in July in Peru.
“I’ve got high hopes this year and want to consistently finish in the top 20 through the World Cup and want to build toward the World Championships later this year because if I do a good job at the Worlds, I’ll pretty much set my spot for the Olympics next summer in Tokyo,” Lokken said. “That’s why it’s so important for me to get a good start.”
Lokken’s quest for an Olympic team spot starts Saturday, when he will compete in the first ICF canoe slalom World Cup, which will be held at Lee Valley Whitewater Centre just outside of London. It is the same venue as the 2012 London Olympics.
Lokken said 2019 is a year for redemption after he was disappointed in his results from his previous year of racing.
“I think this year is a big chance for me to prove myself,” Lokken said. “My last season wasn’t as good as I wanted it to be, and I wasn’t very happy with my results. I really hunkered down and tried to fight for that knowing that this is the Pan-Am Games, the World Cup cycle and qualifying for the Olympics is on the line.”
In order for him to get off to a good start, his biggest test is getting a fast and penalty-free run as quick as possible to get momentum.
Canoe slalom is a race against the clock to get the fastest time possible all while not trying to miss one of up to a maximum 25 gates on the run, which has various up-and downstream locations on a given course. If Lokken misses a gate, it could prove crucial, with a two-second penalty per each missed gate. Given that the gate locations can change, as can the water conditions, it means that no two runs are ensured to be the same.
“My biggest thing right now is just staying consistent with my runs,” Lokken said. “That means to me having a few good runs in a row, and also through the whole course. The top is as good as the bottom, so having consistency and being clean. I’m not sure what our gate arrangement is going to look like in London, but also we really only have one opportunity to do well. If not, we have two runs, but really, that first run is huge.”
London will be the first test of the season, and the World Cup venue will change the following week when it moves June 21-23 to Bratislava, Slovenia.
Lokken said traveling is one of the more enjoyable parts of the job, and he says it’s pretty easy to know where to train and compete: Wherever the water is flowing the best.
“Charlotte is my home right now and where I do most of my training,” he said. “We also go to Australia for the winter and Europe always has good during the summer. We’re traveling a lot just because our sport is so hyped and you have to be on whitewater so much and because the venues are always changing, so you can never really adjust to one specific course. You have to adjust a lot to keep in touch with the water, and the balance that comes with that.”
Charlotte is home to the U.S. National Whitewater Center and the location is growing in influence for paddlers.
Lokken is currently the second-highest ranked American canoer and sits No. 49 in the world behind his close friend and closest competitor, Casey Eichfeld, who is No. 21.
“Casey is such a strong competitor, and he and I have really been pushing each other, and while it’s an individual sport, it really is nice to practice with him and the other Americans here,” Lokken said. “We all get along off of the water, but it gets intense when you’re competing for an Olympic spot.”
Heading into this weekend, Lokken is looking to get the season off to a solid start but knows that he will be facing the best competition in the world.
“I’m ready for it all to kick off,” Lokken said. “I put in a lot of hours training and really got off to a great start when I finally was able to break through and qualify for the Pan-Am Games. I’m not sure what the course will hold, but I know that the competition is going to be really strong, as always, and I’m going to go out there and try my best to have a clean and fast race.”