|World Para-Athletics Championships|
|Venue: Dubai Club for People of Determination, Dubai Dates: 7-15 November|
Just like your average student, Zak Skinner spends many an evening in a nightclub.
The pounding music, the bright lights — it’s where this 21-year-old comes into his own. Yet unlike your average student, alcohol in said nightclub is a no-go for Skinner, because he probably has training in the morning.
Skinner is a DJ; house and ’80s disco music are his speciality. Yet he’s also an elite athlete — a visually impaired T13 long jumper chasing his dream of a Paralympic medal at the Tokyo 2020 Games.
«I’m quite an avid believer in not having all your eggs in one basket,» he tells BBC Sport. «I think there are some athletes who have so much focus and pressure riding on their athletics that when that doesn’t go right, they feel that they have lost everything.
«I feel like having this other passion or this other interest outside sport is so healthy. It doesn’t detract from the sport, but actually makes you better. I don’t think people see that sometimes a distraction can be a positive and not a negative.»
Skinner wants to show just that when he competes at the World Para-Athletics Championships in Dubai, which start on Thursday. At the 2017 edition in London, he finished fourth on his major championship debut — an experience he remarks was «surreal» and a «shock».
Two years on, his expectations have changed. Having won European silver in Berlin last year, Skinner goes to Dubai knowing a medal is well within his grasp — and he’s ready to «step up».
«It is probably going to be the biggest championships of my life so far, because not only is it a world championships but it is 10 months away from Tokyo,» he says.
«It’s no longer time to prep, I have got to go and stamp my mark on the world stage now and prove myself.»
‘Pressure is exciting’ — seeking silverware in Dubai
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.
He says his condition means he can see objects and shapes and colour but not in detail until he’s close up.
«My sight is 75/6,» he says. «That means I need 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 young Skinner’s life, first following his father into the back row before falling in love with athletics because of its «black or white» nature, as opposed to more subjective, opinion-based alternatives — jump a distance, then try to beat it next time.
His rise to the top has been rapid, and he is now preparing to compete with the very best for a second time.
«There is definitely pressure, but if anything I find it more exciting, I see it as more of an opportunity,» he says of the upcoming World Championships.
«My coach said to me recently: ‘There’s one thing you need to remember and that is that fear and excitement are the same emotion, it’s just how you perceive it’.
«That’s very much what I think I will be feeling on the day because there is going to be a lot of pressure and it’s going to be a scary experience, and you’d be kidding yourself if you didn’t think you were going to feel that on the runway. But I’m good at turning those feelings into excitement and being able to really strive in that environment.»
A wise head on young shoulders, Skinner’s positivity is infectious. Yet he’s also careful not to get ahead of himself, knowing the path to the podium isn’t going to be a straightforward one.
«I’m no longer that kid who is there to just compete and do the best he can. I’m now there because I want to go and win,» he says.
«I think I would be lying if I said I wouldn’t be disappointed if I didn’t win a medal, but I am also well aware there is a tough field out there and about six or seven of us who are all jumping very similar distances.
«I think the biggest thing for me is to just go and perform the best I can, and if I do that, there could be a medal up for grabs.»
‘DJ-ing gives me the same rush as athletics’ — selling out clubs and impressing his mum
A talented pianist and saxophonist, Skinner 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.
So much so, he’s starting his own business with his own team, and has his mum to thank for his taste in music.
«She’s come to one of my events before and she enjoyed it — she just said it was a bit noisy,» says Skinner.
Thanks to the English Institute of Sport’s #More2Me campaign, which helps athletes create a more rounded identity and prepare for life after sport, Skinner has studied on a bespoke course in music production and creation in addition to his sports science degree.
For him, it’s a «healthy distraction» from the grind of training and competition, something that prevents him from dwelling on a bad session and keeps him motivated.
«It gave me that same sort of rush as athletics, that same endorphin boost, which just got me hooked on it,» he explains.
«I’m not set on it being a career, as if I want to go and be the next massive DJ — but I think I will always have that passion for it and it will be just a case of seeing where it goes.
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