HIGH ACHIEVERS: Stay-Safe Edition
Keeping Local Sport Spirit High During the Pandemic
By Martin Cleary
OLYMPIC PROSPECTS (Part 5 of 8): Mark Zielonka is all about the team, whether it’s training together on the water, cheering for his peers in races or participating in a potential life-changing talent assessment exercise.
Two years ago, the Ottawa River Runners’ slalom kayaker learned about the RBC Training Ground program from three-time Olympian Michael Tayler of Ottawa and teammate Jean-Benoit Lemay. Zielonka was immediately interested in attending this athletic testing session, which is “a nation-wide talent identification program dedicated to finding and funding Canada’s future Olympians.”
Then, he learned two paddlers in his training group – Maël Rivard and Beatrice Olson – also had their eyes on the fitness testing session Feb. 1, 2020, at the University of Ottawa. They decided to go through the process together and support each other. Lemay also came along to help his teammates in the high-intensity environment.
There must be something about Ottawa River Runners’ team togetherness that produces excellent results because Zielonka, Rivard and Olson successfully completed each step of the RBC Training Ground process, were named to exclusive the Top-30 athlete list and are now stamped Future Olympians.
More than 4,000 athletes took part in the most recent RBC Training Ground program, which started in January, 2020 and ended two years later because of delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
All three slalom whitewater paddlers have decided to pursue their Olympic dreams with their current sport and have been taken under the wing of Canoe Kayak Canada to receive funding and full national team support.
“It’s funny. One of our other teammates had gone through the program and he told us to do it,” said Zielonka, a third-year Global and International Studies student at Carleton University. “We train together every day and we went to the testing together. Even though we do individual performances, we are very much a team; almost a family. Jean-Benoit supported us by coming to cheer us on.
“It means so much that we all have the same goals in the sport. It’s nice to enjoy being better athletes together. We push each other and make our training more enjoyable and fun.”
Zielonka was excited and relieved after qualifying for the Top 100 RBC Training Ground list and then the Top 30, making him a Future Olympian. The recognition and opportunity will give him valuable tools to help develop as a high-performance athlete and put him in a position to make a future Canadian Olympic team.
While he was approached by a recruiter from Rowing Canada after his initial athlete testing two years ago, an open-minded Zielonka decided to stay with slalom whitewater because of his investment in the sport over the past number of years.
He was introduced to the sport at an Ottawa River Runners’ summer camp. His mother had done some canoeing in the past and thought her son would like the challenge.
“I learned to kayak and that got me hooked. I wanted to kayak all the time. I loved being outdoors, the excitement of going down the rapids and the challenge,” said Zielonka, 20, adding the aspect of competition and racing was another exciting element.
Zielonka worked his way onto Canada’s national U23 team in 2021 and also had some races with the national senior team. While he considered his results disappointing in his first year of international competition, he saw an improvement in his skill development.
“I had some rocky moments … disappointing results. But I learned a lot,” he continued.
While he is familiar with training on the Pumphouse/Tailrace course in LeBreton Flats, he knows he has to go to Europe to train on the artificial whitewater courses. Being an RBC Training Ground athlete will put him in the right training environment and aid his progress.
“One of the big things in our sport is in order to compete at the top level, you have to train on the Olympic (artificial) courses. There are none in Canada,” he added. “This will help with skill progression and racing in bigger races.”
When it comes time for the 2022 Canadian national team trials, the slalom paddlers will head to Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, to compete on the Riversport Rapids course. For the moment, he’s planning to go for a two-month training camp in France, which has 16 artificial and natural courses. Canoe kayak whitewater slalom races for the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris will be held at the 22,000-seat National Olympic Nautical Stadium of Ile-de-France in Vaires-sur-Marne.
“Right now, the goal is in a couple of years, Paris 2024,” Zielonka said confidently. “I’m training as much as I can. But in slalom, only one person (from Canada) can go in the end. I compete a lot against that great group. Even if I don’t make it to Paris, I can look forward to Los Angeles (site of the 2028 Summer Olympics).
“This is a big project for me. I have a lot of potential, ideal speed and potential to go faster. But I have a problem with consistency. I’m working on that. My teammates are all improving as much as I am. We’re pushing each other to be better.”
Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 49 years. A past Canadian sportswriter of the year and Ottawa Sports Awards Lifetime Achievement in Sport Media honouree, Martin retired from full-time work at the Ottawa Citizen in 2012, but continued to write a bi-weekly “High Achievers” column for the Citizen/Sun.
When the pandemic struck, Martin created the “Stay-Safe Edition” to provide some positive news during tough times, via his Twitter account at first and now here at OttawaSportsPages.ca.
Martin can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com and on Twitter @martincleary.
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