|17 May 2021|
Zak competes in both track and field events and represented Great Britain in the 100m and long jump at the 2017 World Para Athletics Championships and in 2018 he won European Silver in Berlin. He is currently ranked 4th in the World for T13 long jump. Performance wise, Zak’s future targets include running under 11 seconds for 100m and jumping over 7m. He has been selected for the GB team to compete at the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics which will now be held this year in August/September due to the COVID-19 Pandemic delay.
Hi Zak, Thank you so much for agreeing to talk to us between your Uni studies and training, I know you have a really busy schedule. Please can you give our readers an overview of your career so far?
So 2017 was my first exposure on the World Stage – that was a big eye-opener to think of long jump as a professional sport and what this is all about – that was my last year at Judd for the London World Championships, and then I moved up to Loughborough University, and in the first year we went to the Europeans and that’s where I won Silver.
That was good, but I do think I underperformed there as the whole transition to university was one I didn’t really counter for – uni lifestyle - and adjusting to doing everything by myself was a novelty. The next year I was a bit more clued up as to what to do and how it all works, and that’s when it all clicked and went from sport being a hobby to actually being a profession – it never really feels like a job – but it was step up to a new responsibility to perform - not just for myself now, but for those who support British Athletics.
2019 was a rough year as I tore a ham string mid-way through the season, so then we went to the World Championships in Dubai, but I was coming back from 10-12 weeks off from my injury so I finished 5th in those. That was a massive learning curve about coming back from my first real injury, how to come back from that mentally and physically, developing myself as an athlete, and maturing a bit more…
2020 was meant to be the biggest year for me to date – but we all know what happened in 2020 – COVID hit – and that was really weird as I had put in all this work which seemed pointless as there was nothing happening. It was a really strange time – it felt like a set back but it was also a nice at the same time as was a break in my training as it had been so intense for so long.
Then we came back September/October time to train fully again for this year’s Tokyo which looks fairly promising to go ahead now – and the Europeans in about 3 weeks which will be held in Poland, and then will only be about 2 months until we fly out to Tokyo! It all seems to be happening really fast now.
Born completely blind before gaining some sight at the age of two, Skinner has ocular albinism, a genetic eye condition characterised by vision abnormalities, which his two brothers also have. His condition means he can see objects and shapes and colour but not in detail until he's close up or needs to be six metres away from an object to see what a person with perfect vision can see at 75 metres.
As the son of former Harlequins and England rugby flanker Mickey Skinner, sport has always been part of Zak's life, first following his father into the back row before falling in love with athletics.
His rise to the top has been rapid, and he is now preparing to compete with the very best for a third time.
Were you always good at sport at school?
I was always very sporty – I don’t know how good I was – but I was usually in the A-team for Rugby but I started athletics quite late – in Year 11. I started it because I happened to join a lunch time high-jump club that was put on, and realised I really liked the sport and got more into it, then joined the local Tonbridge Athletics club and from there it all kicked off…
Were you into rugby because of your dad?
Yes – so I was almost destined to just play rugby – I started at Sevenoaks Rugby club and then came to Judd which was such a strong rugby school and had a really strong year as was the year above – half of it was social as all my friends were into rugby but then got more and more into athletics as I moved up the school. I realised I enjoyed athletics being so different to rugby as it’s less subjective. In rugby you can think you had a great game but others don’t agree, whereas in athletics there is a standard and how good you are – no in between – you perform and you jump a certain distance, it puts you in a ranking and you qualify for more competitions, it’s addictive as you are almost competing against yourself as much as anyone else.
Was your dad ok about the transfer from rugby?
Yes absolutely! I think it took him a year to realise I was doing it, but I think it was when I went away to Dubai for a competition that’s when he started to take it seriously and he realised and I was doing it competitively – I guess once you start going places and flying to different countries it becomes more real. He's always been a tremendous support.
Did you have a favourite teacher who made the most difference to you or guided your future direction?
Yes I think there were two main ones who stood out for me – PE wise - Mr. Fraser was definitely quite influential to me – he had such a driving passion for athletics especially running – I still remember he always believed in me and saw potential in me when some people didn’t, which was so nice. I remember he came to the World Championships inLondon with his family – it was so amazing to have my PE teacher who was such a massive part of why I got into athletics there to watch me.
Also Mr. Richardson was my chemistry teacher throughout sixth form and more than that, he was a bit of a mentor as he helped me after school with my chemistry as I was so bad at chemistry – and I got a terrible grade when I left Judd, so I feel bad about that, but he tried his best with me. He was a bit of a mentor and helped point me in the right direction. They both did.
I have to also mention the SEN Department at the school - and the support they gave me for my vision impairment – they played such a big role in helping me through school in every way – the encouragement they gave both my brother and I - really made school life easier for us – they were such an influential and huge role in my education. I have to mention them – especially Mrs Owen if she’s reading this! Judd was a great school and I learned a lot from it.
What did you study at Judd and what did you do when you left school?
A-levels - I did DT and chemistry and biology - I didn’t do great in any of them but I loved DT – great bunch of teachers - Mr. Kemp and Mr. Reay, I think they will remember me because I caused so much mischief in that class but we had such a good group and we had good fun so we all did well. I have very fond memories of the lessons and the teachers – and Miss Manktelow.
I went onto Loughborough to do Sports Science and I’m in my final year now.
Who was the most exciting famous names in athletics who you have competed against or met so far?
I used to train with Jonnie Peacock and James Dasaolu
[Jonny is the lead man for para sport: Jonathan Peacock, MBE is an English sprint runner. An amputee, Peacock won gold at the 2012 Summer Paralympics and 2016 Summer Paralympics, representing Great Britain in the T44 men's 100 metres event. James Dasaolu - a British sprint track and field athlete who specialises in the 100 metres, over which distance he is the 2014 European champion. In July 2013, he became the second fastest Briton of all time after running a 100 m time of 9.91 seconds in the British Championships.]
To be honest there is a massive hub of very talented, successful athletes in Loughborough now. Also Dan Bramble – jumped 8.21 in previous years. [Daniel Bramble is an English athlete specialising in the long jump. He represented his country at the 2015 World Championships and 2016 World Indoor Championships. His personal bests in the event are 8.21 metres outdoors and 8.14 metres indoors.]
Mo Farah and Katarina Johnson-Thompson – you do see big names coming out of the training track every now and then.
What's your advice for any athletes at Judd wanting to go pro?
I think my major piece of advice – especially in athletics as it’s such an individual sport – don’t commit too early or put all your hopes on athletics – it’s a sport that can go wrong and you can pick up injuries so quickly and it’s a tough sport ; you can plateau; you can have ups and downs – and if you aren’t doing stuff outside of athletics, when that does happen you haven’t got anything to fall back on.
Do and try everything, don’t ever think you can’t be good enough at something and believe in yourself, but also don’t make athletics your world – not the only thing you have got – always have your own little hustles or little hobbies in the background.
If you break your leg or injure yourself and you are out for 2 years, you could lose your funding, there is always someone coming up behind you wanting to take your place – stay ready – it’s so performance based now in sport.
A talented pianist and saxophonist, Zak started DJ-ing at house parties after being introduced to it by his neighbour in student halls. Now his club nights in Loughborough are so popular that they sell out in a matter of hours and he’s running a successful business.
Is DJ'ing still a big passion for you, and what’s your favourite music to play?
Yes – that’s my side hobby what I love doing outside the track – obviously that was also massively affected by lockdown – but the business has some big events coming up (when we are allowed to open up again) and unfortunately I can’t be at a lot of those nights as I’ll be at athletics, but that’s what I’ve been doing the last two years -I’ve been building up trusted business partners to run it for me while I’m away - which is hard as I’m a bit of a control freak. Now I can still run the business from afar and I’m really looking forward to seeing everyone out there and having a good time again. Our marketing point is House and 80s music – there's always a great market for it and disco but my personal taste changes on a weekly basis.
I’ve recently seen the Paralympics GB kit for Tokyo 2020 – it looks fab! What do you think about it?
I love it! – it was such an honour to be asked by Adidas to do the shoot – it’s lovely – I think they’ve smashed the design to be honest. A big thing is that this is really functional this time – this Olympic kit is really lovely to wear.
What are your aspirations/goals in the next few years?
I want to win – you have to go into every competition thinking you’ll win it- realistically coming back with a medal at my first Paralympics would still be a massive achievement
I'll just go and enjoy it and have a good time and then that’s when the best performances come.
Long-term? – I want to break the world record at some point. Apart from winning the World Championships and Paralympics that’s really the biggest step next.
Where can we follow your progress at the games please?
All will be shown on Channel 4 – “C4 Paralympics” and quite a few meets on BBC leading up to the games. British champs on BBC and a couple of Diamond Leagues on the TV.
Also my Instagram and British Athletics on Facebook.
I would love to come back to Judd soon to say hi – I’m sure I still know some boys from when I was there and to see the teachers again. I would love to come and do a talk in the months after Tokyo perhaps.
Well Zak, we are all so proud of you and all cheering you on at both your next events. Please do come back and talk to us about how it goes and well done! You are a big inspiration to a lot of people, thank you!
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