TORONTO – When someone first mentioned the word Para sport to Jesse Zesseu, he wasn’t quite sure what it meant.
The 24-year-old thrower and long jumper from Toronto thought sport for athletes with a disability was for those competing in wheelchairs or amputees – in other words, with visible disabilities.
‘’I was doing some social media work for Cerebral Palsy Ontario, and I was asked what sports I did,” he said earlier this year at the Canadian Paralympic Committee content summit in Toronto. ‘’Then they asked me if it was competing against able-bodied or Para. I answered I don’t know what that (Para) means.”
So Zesseu underwent the classification process to see in which category he could compete in Para sport. He eventually learned that his results would have qualified him for the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio.
‘’I was a regular student about to graduate and the next week I was training like four, five times a week,” Zesseu recalled. “That led to classification and I had the performance standard to be on Team Canada, so it was pretty quick. It’s been a good ride.”
Zesseu was born with cerebral palsy after having a stroke at birth. He has 75 percent function on his right side compared to his left side.
‘’The example I always give is I’m 175 pounds, but I’d be 200 pounds if I was all like my left side or I’d be 150 pounds if I was all my right side,” he explained. ‘’The muscle tone is a little tighter and I need longer breaks for my central nervous system to calm down or else I start dragging that side of my body pretty much.”
His track and field career took off once he enrolled at the University of Guelph. It was one of the best programs in the country and he found a brother and mentor in coach Paul Galas.
‘’I was lucky enough just by chance to go to the University of Guelph,” he recalled. ‘’It’s a really high calibre program and Paul Galas, he’s the best coach I could ask for.’’
‘’He is extremely attentive, extremely detailed, plus I can relate to him because he is only three years older than me. Like he’s a really young coach but he feels like he’s been doing this a long time. I’m not scared to interject or give advice.
‘’It’s a good coaching (and athlete) relationship.’’
Zesseu graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in political science and marketing in 2021.
He has long term goals of ultimately winning medals in running, throwing, and jumping events. He entered this week’s World Para Athletics Championships – his first – ranked second in the world in discus and 10th in long jump and they are both Canadian records set this season.
The focus until Paris 2024 are those two events.
‘’It’s a weird combination,” he admitted. ‘’When I face discus throwers they are all 80 pounds heavier than me and all the long jumpers are all heavier than me. But we found a sweet spot where it works the best and since the discus is a little lighter I can use my speed more than those guys who use pure brute strength.”
At the end of the competition, all Zesseu wants is to be on top of the podium.