Zachary Lokken’s final run at the Pan-American Games in Lima, Peru, could not have been scripted for a more dramatic ending than the one that occurred at Río Cañete – Lunahuana on Sunday.
The Durango canoer paddled his way to a gold medal in the men’s canoe slalom final, which was won in come-from-behind fashion, as he edged Argentina’s Sebastian Rossi by a mere .14 seconds to claim his first-ever gold medal at the international competition.
Lokken’s gold-medal winning run was completed in 1 minute, 30.66 seconds, while Rossi, who held the lead heading into the final run, took the silver medal and crossed the final gate 1:30.88 seconds. Brazil’s Felipe Borges battled to a bronze medal in 1:31.39, just .76 second behind Lokken.
The 25-year-old sat in third-place at the start of the final day of racing, but after a solid semifinal run that boosted him up to second-place despite a two-second penalty, he knew that he was in contention for a gold medal, but was still .79 seconds behind Rossi.
“Honestly, I didn’t have winning times in my first three runs, and was aiming for silver,” Lokken told The Durango Herald after his win on Sunday. “I thought my final run was great, but it all depended on Sebastian, who’s a really good paddler. I saw that he and I finished in the same second, and it took me a second to realize that I had won.”
Lokken’s semifinal run was completed in 1:32.53 seconds, and he knew that he would have to be close to the 90-second mark to be close to the gold.
On his final run, in which he was the second-to-last racer to hit the water, he had the second-fastest first split time of 23.63 seconds, and had a second split of 34.96 seconds, which put him at 58.59 seconds total. In the final third of his run, he paddled his way to a 32.07-second final leg.
Rossi’s splits were 23.18 to start the race, but added a half-second to his time and reached the 12th gate in 58.61 seconds, and had a final split time of 32.19 seconds.
“Earlier in the day, I knew I wasn’t pushing it as hard as I could go in the semifinals, and so before the final run, I knew that I had to try to give it everything and when I finished, I wanted nothing left in the tank,” Lokken said. “I took that first stroke and felt good. With the first leg, it’s all about energy and I was able to get off to a fast start. Toward the middle and end, I was just trying to be a bit conservative without getting a penalty. That last split, anything is possible and I really just wanted to finish strong and be mistake-free.”
With three previous penalties committed in his runs up to the final, including one on the final gate of Saturday’s first heat, he knew he had to be spot-on.
“I have never been in a race that close before,” Lokken said. “I knew that any mistake would cost you, and it was all about who could push it that extra bit.”
It was a bittersweet moment for Lokken, who is good friends with Rossi out of the water, but added that when it’s that close of a finish, the difference might be by the blade of a paddle.
“Watching Sebastian’s final third of the race, I was like ‘... He’s making really good time and I’m not sure that I’m going to be able to pull this off,’” Lokken said. “I was looking at the clock as the time went by and was counting, just seeing how close it was was surreal. There’s no control over a finish like that, and the difference (in time) is virtually nothing. Sebastian and I are good friends, I was happy for him and he was for me.”
It was his first competition since the International Canoe Federation’s World Cup races in June, where he finished in 18th in Bratislava, Slovakia, and took 14th in Ljubljana, Slovenia. He has been training for the Pan-American Games since July, and after spending some time at his home base in Charlotte, North Carolina, home of the U.S. National Whitewater Center, he arrived in Peru a week ago to prepare for an unfamiliar course.
“It was a lot of normal, basic training, with whitewater, flat water and putting work in the gym,” Lokken said about his preparation for the Pan-Ams, “When I arrived, a big part of it was figuring out the course; where to sprint, how to make up time, and nobody knew the course. It gave me a new perspective and to see how it played out was really cool.”
Rounding out the finishers were Canada’s Liam Smedley, who completed his run in 1:37.28, and Venezuela’s Melquisdec Vega, who took fifth in 1:42.13.
Lokken, a Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games hopeful, will look to extend his run of form at next month’s ICF Canoe Slalom World Championships, held Sept. 25-29 in La Seu d’Urgell, Spain.
“This race gives me a lot of confidence heading into next month,” Lokken said. “I’ve been training for this, and it’s a big chapter and milestone to perform at my best and come from behind, as well. No matter how the results went, whether I took second or third, knowing that I can perform my best in a final is huge.”