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Bug on a river: Durango’s Lokken into Olympics for slalom canoe

Courtesy of Zach Lokken . Zach Lokken of Durango earned his spot at the 2021 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo in canoe slalom and will represent the U.S. July 25-26. It is his first time qualifying for the Olympics.
Love for paddling began on Animas River, has taken 2012 Durango High graduate around the world and to first Summer Games

Zachary Lokken sat in a slalom canoe at the age of 7 and was given one instruction. All he had to do was cross the finish line.

Twenty years later, the next time Lokken crosses the finish line of a canoe slalom race, it will be at the Olympics.

The 27-year-old from Durango earned the American men’s spot for the 2021 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo. He won the U.S. Olympic Team Trials on April 14 in North Carolina, and then he was the lone American to advance to the finals at the International Canoe Federation Canoe Slalom World Cup on June 12 in Prague, Czech Republic. That clinched his Olympic qualification for the first time in his career.

“Really since 2008, I have had my eyes on being an Olympian,” Lokken said in a phone interview with The Durango Herald. “But I didn’t really get that fire in my eyes until 2016. I was really close that year, and the last few years I really improved on some of my techniques and skills. For me to get that spot this year, it’s just incredible. It’s something that is hard to describe and something only athletes can understand – when you have that goal for so long and then finally achieve it.”

The win at the Olympic Trials gave Lokken, 2012 graduate of Durango High School, three points toward qualification. But many more points were at stake at the World Cup in Prague. He advanced through the bracket to make the final and finish eighth, 7.63 seconds behind winner Lukas Rohan of the Czech Republic.

During the heats, U.S. competitor Casey Eichfeld, a 31-year-old from Pennsylvania, was unable to advance to the semifinals.

Because of Eichfeld’s elimination, Lokken went into the final knowing he had done enough to get to Tokyo. He would finish second in an impressive semifinals, 1.89 behind Poland’s Kacper Sztuba and ahead of eventual second-place finisher Adam Burgess of Great Britain.

Lokken had finished behind Eichfeld in qualification for the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Brazil. It would be the third Olympics Eichfeld would qualify for, while Lokken was forced to look ahead to the next cycle ahead of the 2020 Games. With the goal achieved, he savored every moment of his final run at Prague.

“It was kind of one of those victory laps,” Lokken said. “I had this huge weight lifted off my shoulders. We had been in Prague for three weeks before the race training, and it was all for that one moment. After qualifying in the semifinals on a very good run that I was really happy with, I kind of got to soak it all in with my mom and girlfriend there to enjoy it with me.

“To beat Casey Eichfeld, who is ranked top 20 in the world and had been to the last few Olympics, it was stiff competition. It meant a lot to edge him out. Even though we are competitors, we are also training partners and really good friends. Casey helped push me to get to that level of being able to beat him. He gave me that push everyone needs to get better.”

In slalom canoe, racers handle whitewater through a course lined with 25 gates to navigate between. Missed gates are a time penalty, with penalties ranging anywhere from two to 50 seconds. Lokken will travel July 6 to Tokyo to begin preparation on the Olympic course, which he first got to preview in 2019. He hopes the weeks leading up to competition July 25-26 will help him establish familiarity during his pursuit to make the finals.

This year, there is no two-man slalom canoe competition, only one-man canoe. Lokken will be one of 21 men from 21 different nations with only the top seven to advance to the finals.

“My main focus is to get into that finals run. Obviously, the medals are always the goal, but I like to have chapters to my goals like chapters of a book,” said Lokken, the 2019 Pan-American Games champion. “In 2020, I felt good, but it was all postponed due to COVID. That was a chapter toward me getting here. The next chapter was my winter training, then preparing for the Olympic Team Trials and then the next chapter was finishing it off in Prague. Now, my next chapter is to get there and practice on the course, then get through my heat, into the semifinals and then the finals.”

Courtesy of Zach LokkenWith an extra year to work on his technique, Durango's Zach Lokken is as prepared as he could be for the 2021 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo, where he will compete in slalom canoe.

‘Cute as a Bug’

Lokken, son of Angela and Eric Lokken, quickly got into paddling sports as a child.

Angela and Eric said they volunteered at Animas River Days in 1989 hoping to get a free shirt and make some new friends after moving to Durango.

Zachary was quickly in a hard boat, as he looked to keep up with older brothers William and Joshua.

It was in the water where Lokken earned his trademark nickname “Bug.” But it didn’t come on the river. It was a swim lesson instructor who told Angela and Eric their son was “cute as a bug,” and it has stuck ever since, with Lokken putting a bug logo sticker on all of his boats still to this day.

When Lokken was 7, his parents put him in a slalom canoe. Angela wanted him in a different discipline than his kayaking brothers so she could find a way to watch all of the boys in their various races without having to run up and down the river trying to see them all at the same time.

Lokken said he immediately was drawn to the sport and wanted to race as soon as he could. With the guidance of early mentor Ryan Bahn, Lokken got his first chance to qualify for the Junior Olympics when he was 7. Bahn told him he didn’t need to navigate any of the gates, all he had to do was paddle downstream to the finish line to qualify.

“I looked at Bug at the start after his coach told him that, and his eyes were glassed over. He just went for it, and he even made most of the gates,” Angela said. “It was one of his very first races, and you could already see the passion he had. We knew he was going to someday do something with it and enjoy himself along the way.”

Lokken said he still remembers that race fondly and the way it has shaped his life ever since.

“Ryan Bahn was a C1 racer, and I kind of just wanted to emulate him as my mentor at a young age,” Lokken said. “Freestyle and creeking, I was never that interested in it. I just loved competing in slalom racing.”

Eric recalled marveling at how quickly his youngest son learned the J-stroke paddle motion and how he began to progress in a sport that favors athletes in their late 20s and early 30s more than younger paddlers in their teens and early 20s.

“He was just a natural at it, and I remember seeing him on the Animas when he was 7 doing that J-stroke, and we were all amazed to see it,” Eric said. “He’s competitive, too, and that paired with his natural ability together has always seemed to work for him.”

Lokken got serious into racing at age 10. Ever since, his parents and brothers have been supportive and stayed involved. William is now an official for canoe slalom racing and will officiate his second Olympics, while Eric first officiated at the Olympics in 1996 and will once again officiate this year.

“I am fortunate. My oldest son and I being officials, we will be able to be there,” Eric said. “Angela and our other boy are going to get to go to an NBC deal in Orlando so they can be part of it from there, too. Being involved for so long, I have seen so many Olympians in this sport and know them all. Seeing my own son there is going to be very special.”

Durango canoer Zachary Lokken won the gold medal in canoe slalom in 2019 at the Pan-American Games in Lima, Peru, with a winning time of 1 minute, 30.66 seconds. Courtesy of Zachary Lokken

Lokken has lived in Charlotte, North Carolina, since he graduated high school so he could train full time at the U.S. National Whitewater Center with the national team.

“Even when he was still in high school, he sacrificed everything, never going to high school dances or anything like that because he was always in North Carolina or somewhere else training,” Angela said. “Some of the things he’s had to give up over the years just to get to this goal is amazing, and we’re so proud of him.”

Lokken thanked his parents for supporting his passion and helping send him to races all over the world. He also credited his girlfriend, Anna Ifarraguerri, for her continued support and pushing him in the sport through all the ups and downs. She, too, was a competitive slalom athlete on the national team before she recently retired to go to medical school at George Washington University.

From the Animas River to the Olympics, Lokken will also feel all the support from the Durango paddling community while in Tokyo.

“This is so unique for a Western paddler,” Angela said. “Most of the kids in the past who have gone to the Games in canoe or kayak have all been from the East. To have a paddler from here is extremely unique just because we don’t have a dam controlled river. We have to figure out how to paddle on what nature is giving us at the time.”

“From breaking ice at the 32nd Street put-in on the Animas during the winter to train to traveling all over, it’s been a lot of work and a lot of fun,” Eric said.

‘Scared I wouldn’t be OK’

A month before the Olympic Trials, Lokken was driving back to North Carolina from a visit to Washington, D.C., where his girlfriend is from. In a rainstorm on a highway, Lokken lost control of his car.

“I slammed into a tree after going through some grass that slowed me down to about 50 mph,” Lokken said. “It hurt, and I was really scared I wouldn’t be OK. I had heard all these stories of people breaking collarbones on the seatbelt and stuff like that, and all I could think about was if I was going to be able to compete. I thought for a minute that it was the end of it, that I wouldn’t be able to race and I wouldn’t go to the Olympics.”

Durango’s Zachary Lokken has never lost his love for canoe slalom after 20 years of racing. Courtesy of Zachary Lokken

Lokken initially felt back pain when he tried to move. But once he relaxed, he knew he had avoided any major injuries. He was forced to take time off and focus on healing his whiplash injuries before the trials.

“As a family, we took it in stride,” Eric said. “First, we asked if his boat was OK. Then, we asked if he was OK. Luckily, he just didn’t let it affect him. He lost the car, but we all just moved forward.”

With the accident and qualification behind him, Lokken is now ready to absorb everything the Olympics has to offer, even in a pandemic year in which athletes may be kept more separate from each other than normal.

And if he gets the chance to meet any athlete in the Olympic Village, he hopes it is U.S. gymnastics superstar Simone Biles.

“I’m sure that’s the answer for everyone, but she’s such a legend and so cool,” Lokken said. “I’m not really sure what the ceremonies and all that are going to look like this year, but I definitely want to partake in all of it if I can. I’m so humbled to get the chance to be around all of these athletes in their sports and to get a chance to see how they prepare, how they carry themselves. Everyone there, you know they are so passionate about the sport they love.”

It’s that passion that has kept Lokken happy in his boat for the last 20 years, and what will continue to propel him in the sport for years to come.

“I still love it. It never gets old, and I never get tired of it,” he said.

jlivingston@durangoherald.com

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