Road To The Olympic Games

Artistic-Gymnastics·Profile

Timing is everything for Olympic hopeful Jackson Payne

Artistic gymnast Jackson Payne is in contention for the lone spot on Canada's Olympic team. While his career has been put on hold on several occasions, Payne has been making up for lost time recently.

24-year old waiting on decision from Gymnastics Canada

Canadian gymnast Jackson Payne competes during the final Olympic qualifier in Rio in April. ( Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

Jackson Payne has it all down, except maybe his timing.

Sometimes the lack of timing has been the young man's fault, like when he decided to embark on his Mormon mission just when he was coming into his own as a gymnast.

Sometimes the lack of timing hasn't been his fault, like when he suffered a torn right Achilles tendon weeks before the Pan American Games in Toronto last summer.

But as much as Payne's timing may not be the best, he has an uncanny ability to make up for lost time.

For instance, take the first weekend in June. The Canadian men's artistic gymnastic team has not qualified for the Rio Olympic Games, but there still is a spot open for one male gymnast to compete in Brazil.

The 24-year-old Payne arrived in his hometown of Edmonton for the national championships hoping to put himself in the mix for that lone spot. He came through, winning his third overall national title highlighted by a gold on the parallel bars.

He now will have to wait until June 30 when the final decision will be made by Gymnastics Canada. It's between Payne, Vancouver's Scott Morgan and Rene Cournoyer of Repentigny, Que., for the one spot available in men's artistic gymnastics on the Olympic team.

"It was a long road back," Payne said. "It took a year to get back to this point. There were some errors. I know I have room for improvement. I know there is more left in me."

Before Gymnastics Canada makes its decision, there's more stress for Payne. But this time, it's the good sort of stress. He's getting married this weekend.

Two different missions

Payne, the fifth of six children, began his courtship with gymnastics at the age of six. His older sister Jenny, nine years his senior, was into gymnastics as a teenager.

Payne recalls travelling in the family car, dropping Jenny off for practice and picking her up afterwards. But there were the times he was allowed to explore around the gym.

There was the slide that went down to a trampoline. He loved it. But he also exhibited promise.

A coach suggested that Jackson enroll into the program. He did and was an instant hit. Now his sister takes credit for Jackson becoming an international gymnastics success story.

"Once she was introducing me at a church in Lethbridge, where I was speaking, and she said 'I'm the reason why he's in gymnastics,'" Jackson recalled.

The family's strong faith is the reason Payne left the gymnastics world a few months after he won his first overall Canadian title in 2011. It was time for his Mormon mission and as a result he was off to South Korea.

"It was a great opportunity," Jackson said. "It was a big sacrifice to leave behind competing and training, but in those two years I've become a better person. I was meant to go to Korea. Everything that happened there felt right."

He loved South Korea. Payne had been around the world through his various competitions, but never there.

There are strict rules when a youngster embarks on a mission like Payne did. His responsibilities were teaching Koreans about the Church of Latter Day Saints in the hopes of building the faith in the country as well as teaching English classes three times a week.

"It was difficult," Payne said. "I went into my mission not knowing if I would ever do [gymnastics] again. It was terrifying. It was scary, but at the same time my religion is very important to me. I knew that if I put my trust into that decision it would work out."

It did work out. Eight months into his mission, Payne was given permission to visit the Korean National Sports University. He slowly worked himself back into form.

Turning adversity into opportunity

Fast forward to last summer, and Payne's back, performing at an elite level. He'd just won his second overall national title, excited about the approaching Pan American Games.

Jackson is fine-tuning his floor exercise. He's working on the final tumbling line. There is the two-and-a-half-twist, when all of a sudden he landed hard on his right foot, tearing his Achilles tendon.

"It felt like I put my foot through the floor," said Payne, whose favourite disciplines are the pommel horse and high bar. "There wasn't pain. It was the pain inside knowing you were going to be out for a few months."

"It was really one of the worst down moments in my life. I remember being on my couch watching our guys compete. I was happy for them, but it hurt knowing that I had this opportunity to compete at home for Canada in front of friends and family and make it to the podium," he said.

Payne trained as much as he could. There was a photo that made its way around the Internet that showed him working out his parallel bars routine with a boot cast on his right foot.

He also continued his kinesiology studies at the University of Alberta because he plans to go to medial school.

He turned the disappointment into a positive.

"If you can take something back from what happens, you can really grow," Payne concluded.

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