Lining up for the high jump at the Junior Olympics triathlon competition this summer, Key Biscayne 5th-grader Parker Zuccarini admits he felt the pressure of the moment.
“They did the shot put first, and I was too nervous – I didn’t have my form,” he said. “Before the high jump, I had this weird feeling. I knew you have to jump, but you have to be careful.”
But when he’d cleared bar, he landed on the mat not only successfully, but with a personal best that put in well on his way to a 10th-place finish in the nation.
For Parker’s dad, Paul Zuccarini, who coaches his son and other kids in the Village’s Youth Track & Field program, it was rewarding to see Parker acknowledge and overcome the natural nerves a young person would feel on the national stage.
“Part of being successful in any endeavor is rising up to any occasion you’re faced with,” he said. “After hearing him say that, I think that’s what happened to him. It’s a combination of becoming more coordinated and growing up, and the fact that he’s calmer and more composed. It’s neat to see sports helping him grow in terms of maturity and confidence.”
Paul said that’s one of the main goals of the Track & Field program, and youth sports in general. He added he has seen other local students who have the potential to compete nationally and welcomes kids to the program, which is held after school at the Key Biscayne K-8 Center.
For Parker, last year’s debut of the program not only provided the training he needed to make it to the Junior Olympics, it showcased the type of community support Key Biscayne is known for.
Parker started with the Track & Field program in February, and worked hard to learn the new skills. “It was my first year, and I had to practice my form and everything I did,” he said.
He ultimately entered and won a regional competition, meaning it was onto the national level: The Junior Olympics held in Des Moines, Iowa in August. To get ready, he continued his training after school ended, working Monday through Thursday on running, shot put and high jump – the three skills that are part of the triathlon he would be competing in.
He found he is especially fond of the high jump. “You have to learn the form of jumping off one leg and making your back curve, so you can get up over the bar,” he said. “It was scary in the beginning, but I learned if I jump and don’t think about it I’m probably going to make it.”
Parker also discovered just how fortunate he is to train on the Key. Paul said he was heartened to find plenty of training partners for his son, even during the stifling summer months: “It’s not easy to find people who say, ‘Hey, I’ll go get real tired and real hot running in the sun,’ but a lot of people came out to run with him. That was very cool of them,” he said. “It’s hard to always do something by yourself; other people give you that extra motivation.”
On top of that, Paul said, as both Parker’s coach and dad, it was invaluable for him to have other positive influences on his son: “It’s hard to always be the one pushing him,” he noted.
He also thanked Zuccarini Watershot LLC, owned by his brother, for sponsoring the team.
In the end, the “it takes a Village” approach was a success: Parker and Paul made the trip to Des Moines – “I had to get up at 3:30 a.m. It was not the most fun,” Parker joked of his flight there – and headed to Drake Relay Stadium, where many legendary collegiate races have been held.
Parker admits he was shocked by the sheer size of the venue and knew the competition would be fierce, but approached it by simply trying to do his best and make the most of the experience.
In the end, he did just that: Parker earned 10th place in the nation in the Boys 10 Triathlon with a high jump of 3 feet, 9.25 inches; shot put of 21 feet, 6 inches; and 400 meters of 71.62 seconds. The high jump and 400 meters marks were both personal records.
“I was shocked that I could get my PR in two events, and it was just fun to actually be able to go there and be there with my family. I will remember it for a long time,” he said. “When I realized I wasn’t going to get a medal, I was still happy. I think it was pretty good for my first time.”
Indeed, Parker plans to pursue next year’s Junior Olympics competition, where he would be in the pentathlon – shot put, high jump, 1,500-meter run, 80-meter hurdles and running broad jump.
Paul said he looks forward to continuing to work with Parker and the rest of his Track & Field group in the months ahead. This year, he said, he’s adding training on hurdles thanks to new equipment and the help of Gus Smith, a retired elite hurdler. He’s also offering small group track and field sessions for older kids. For more information, contact KeyBiscayneTrack@gmail.com.
As for his son, Paul said watching Parker succeed on a big stage is rewarding, but even more important is simply seeing his son enjoy a variety of sports.
“Flag football starts in a couple weeks, and he’s more excited about that than anything; and after flag football, we’re onto basketball,” he said. “Then it’s onto the next sport. My plan is to let him do whatever he wants until he picks something.”