‘No excuses’. A term used by so many and practiced by so few. Perhaps we all need a reminder that things could be harder, life could be more challenging and excuses could be more credible.
Zion, 23, wasn’t born in poll position. With no legs to carry him and no family to support him, it would seem inconceivable he’d grow up to become an Olympic athlete and Netflix superstar. And yet, that’s exactly what he did. A man possessing not only the heart but the true prowess of a lion. I was in awe.
“I wake up at about six or seven o’clock every morning and train first thing,” Zion tells me with a beaming smile that runs from ear to ear, having me hooked from the first few moments of our Zoom chat. “Today I’m heading to competition,” he says. “I have to drive five hours to Phoenix, Arizona for the World Grand Prix because I race in two days’ time.”
“I train pretty much year-round, as much as I can,” he says. “The lead-up to this event has been about three months. I’ve just been working really hard on fine-tuning everything that I’m doing.” Zion swears by his belief that we are put on this earth by God to show people that nothing is impossible. The words NO EXCUSES etched across his trapezius are a testament to the consistency that’s resulted in his rise to sporting superstardom. Adopted at the age of 16 by the woman he will always call ‘mom’, Zion endured eight foster homes before finally settling down.
“Disability is the only thing I’ve ever known. I had to make it work because I didn’t have any other choice,” he says. “Those who’ve been in accidents and lost their legs or become paralyzed overnight have faced a bigger challenge than me because I was born this way. But if they’re determined enough and they’re truly motivated, it’s no different, because they just accept the change and make the best of that bad situation and make the most out of life.
“Disability is the only thing I’ve ever known. I had to make it work because I didn’t have any other choice”
“There are no excuses and you’ve just got to get out there and do it,” he says. “My faith plays a big part in my everyday life and what I do. I can thank my mom for that. Kimberly Hawkins. She adopted me and has done a lot for me and keeping my faith steady. She’s my real mom. She has really helped me just become an absolute boss athlete in my own right, because she has taught me to never give up and to really push as hard as I can to achieve what I want.”
“When the spotlight hit me it was like, ‘Whoa, what’s going on?’, because at the time I was a really sheltered kid and I really didn’t talk to anybody,” he says. “Suddenly out of nowhere, all these cameras were in my face and it was so unnerving for a while. It’s been about five years since that time and I’m used to it now. I know how to act well in front of the camera. I know how to perform, how to be a crowd-pleaser. Performing has become a part of my everyday life. I’m making it my own little job and embracing it with everything I do.
“When I race in track and field, or I wrestle, sometimes there can be thousands of people in the crowd who are all there just to see you compete. It’s crazy because all eyes are on you and the spotlight is literally, in the most physical sense on you. You’ve got to be a crowd-pleaser. You have to know how to perform, to win for yourself, but please the crowd too. Once you become a professional, it’s not just about you, it’s about the fans too. I love my fans. That’s why every time I do anything, I try to be a crowd-pleaser.”
Watching Zion wrestle is just incredible, partly owing to the fact his physicality presents both advantages and disadvantages in the ring. One would be forgiven for asking whether he can wiggle out of things easier, yet on the other hand, I questioned how it’s possible to win a match without legs. The strength in Zion’s upper body is nothing short of phenomenal. If you’ve not yet watched the Netflix doc, do it! The tactics employed to get his opponents into headlocks and pin them down are almost superhuman.
“Wrestling has changed my life in more ways than one. It’s really given me a lot of confidence and taught me so much discipline,” he says. “It’s taught me how to become a grown man and be respectful to people around me. With wrestling comes the skill of being a martial artist and turning your body into a weapon, so you know how to practice restraint when situations escalate. You have to be the bigger man and hold your own without putting your hands on anybody.
“Skills wise, it’s a lot of repetition,” he says. “My coach always said, ‘never fear the man who practices a thousand kicks; fear the man who practices that one kick a thousand times’. So my thing was that I would practice a handful of moves over and over and over again. They became the top moves in my arsenal. So, a headlock, leg sweeps, arm throws and head throws. I just practiced those relentlessly until they became second nature.”
“Once you become a professional, it’s not just about you, it’s about the fans too”
Getting into superhuman shape certainly can’t be easy. For Zion, it’s a case of continuous sports-specific training.
“When it comes to building upper-body strength, it’s not about lifting per se,” he says, “I do practice pushing and pulling lifts for wrestling, but at the same time, you don’t get into wrestling shape without practicing the sport. You have to wrestle to get in wrestling shape. You can run as much as you want, you can lift as much as you want, but at the end of the day, if you’re not on the mat, you’re not going to be in shape for that competition. Right now I’m just training for the track and field season. So I’ll usually hit the weights room for an hour or two and then I take about an hour’s break to recuperate, relax, gather myself and recover. After that, I hit the track for about two and a half hours. Mondays are usually long distance, Tuesdays are short distances and on Wednesdays, I work on my starts. On Thursdays, I do a distance cool-down and on Fridays, I’m free to just fine-tune things because usually, my competitions start on the weekends. There are no days off.”
Zion preps himself for an event by staying cool, calm, and collected.
“The week before the race or match, I focus on training and studying my own skills and those of my opponents. When it comes to competition or match day, a lot of athletes get themselves super psyched up, but in reality, I’m usually just sitting there meditating a little bit, just calming my breathing down. My heart rate’s up, but my breathing is slow. I just like to relax and be in my little Zen mode, because I perform best when I’m calm. Some athletes perform best when they’ve got all their energy coursing through their blood, but I’m not made that way.
“My coach always said, ‘never fear the man who practices a thousand kicks; fear the man who practices that one kick a thousand times’”
“When the race or match is over I just sit there and watch everybody else compete. I enjoy competition. I have a lot of respect for the other professionals and it’s just an awesome thing to watch because it’s really crazy how far those of us with disabilities can push ourselves to these levels of athleticism. It’s awesome because with the Paralympic committee and the Olympic committee, they’re one committee and we’re dubbed professionals, just like regular Olympians. Everybody has respect for the sport. So, we all come together and watch. I take joy in watching other people work their hardest and that motivates me to do better.”
Getting the right fuel for success is a crucial part of Zion’s daily routine.
“I drink a lot of smoothies and turmeric drinks,” he says. “Usually I’ll eat spinach, eggs and potatoes, and then I’ll grill meat. Chicken, burgers, anything that’s on the grill is perfect. So long as the meat is not super greasy, I’ll eat it. I really enjoy cooking and I cook for my girlfriend once in a while too. She likes my cooking and I take pride in it since my mother taught me how to cook as part of self-sufficiency.”
Zion met girlfriend Tay six months ago when she messaged him on Instagram. “It’s been an interesting time,” he says. “Before I met Tay I was single for about two years, because I had just come out of a really bad relationship. And this girl, just popped up and messaged me on Instagram. The funny thing is I never usually answer anybody, because I have other people run my pages when it comes to business, but I just so happened to be on my phone that night. She was like, ‘hey, you single?’ And I was just like, ‘Yeah, I am. What’s up?’ and we just started talking. A couple of weeks later, I flew to New York to see her and check her out and we really hit it off. I just felt inclined to go back and see her again, and again, and again. Then we ended up dating. I’m pretty sure we’re in it together for the long run.”
“I just like to relax and be in my little Zen Mode, because I perform best when I’m calm”
Zion’s upper body not only serves as both his hands and feet, but works tirelessly to perform up to 150 push-ups straight!
“I practice push-ups most days. I can do 150 straight push-ups back-to-back and about 55 pull-ups.”
“It’s really crazy how far those of us with disabilities can push ourselves to these levels of athleticism”
Clearly having achieved the unachievable in his sporting career, Zion has his sights set on new goals.
“My next big venture is this book right here,” he says, proudly presenting his newly published works to the camera. “It’s called ‘Zion Unmatched’ and can be found on Amazon, Target, Barnes and Nobles and in other big stores across the U.K., Canada and the U.S.
“When you’re at your most tired, either you’ll break and fold, or you’ll push through and dominate. I like to choose the second option”
“It’s part one of a three-book deal that I signed. This first book is primarily aimed at kids. I’ve kept it simple, because I do like to reach out to the younger generation. The second book will be more of a young adult’s read, and then the third book will be my memoir.
“I’ve been working with a writer called Jim Hirsch. He’s written a couple of New York Times Bestsellers. We’ve been working diligently together for over a year.”
Did this man ever rest? I wondered how he spent his spare time- if indeed there was any!