By Melissa Novacaska
Sam Zakutney made his way home to Ottawa to claim the top prize during the 2019 Artistic Gymnastics Canadian Championships.
The meet, held at Carleton University from May 21-26, included some of the best of the best in the Canadian gymnastics world.
After completing six routines including floor, pommel horse, rings, vault, parallel bars and high bar, this was Zakutney’s first senior all-around (AA) win at the championships, finishing with an 83.400 score to capture national gold. Quebec’s René Cournoyer came in 2nd place, with fellow Ontarian, Justin Karstadt, finishing in 3rd.
“I was surprised, but I was really just proud and relieved at the same time,” Zakutney told the Ottawa Sportspage.
The 20-year-old, who’ll be going into his senior year at Penn State, but represents the Ottawa Gymnastics Centre here in Canada, said that at first his win was “odd”, but as he completed each event he felt “on his game” and started to think his chances of winning could happen.
According to Zakutney, a highlight for him was hitting the pommel horse, also known as his nemesis, neat and well.
“Pommel [horse]is one of my rougher spots, so when I hit that routine, I was just like ‘Okay, I really think I can do this, I just have to make sure everything else goes smoothly’, and then once I finished parallel bars, I was just like ‘It’s going to be close, but I don’t know, I think I did it’. When the final score came up I was kind of like “wow”, it wasn’t ‘Oh I did an okay job and I didn’t expect it to happen’, it was like as the meet went on I was like ‘Yeah you know what, this might work and it did’.”
Though he just missed the podium at last year’s championships due to an injury to his Achilles tendon, he still did well, which helped give him confidence heading into this year’s event.
Zakutney said he didn’t necessarily have “major aches” going into this year’s event, but he did jam his ankles badly at one point during the year. Though he didn’t miss any meets, Zakutney said he had to tailor practices and make sure he didn’t tire his ankles out.
“The last half of the season, my ankles were in a lot of pain, but I was still able to push though,” Zakutney said. “[But] definitely [with] last year and still being able to do well with the limited time I had from that injury, it definitely made me trust my ability more. I knew at that point, there’s nothing I have to worry about that could possibly hold me back so I didn’t leave any room for doubt.”
One aspect of this year’s championships that made it “more special” for Zakutney included the number of people who came to the Carleton’s fieldhouse to cheer him on, including family, friends and the Penn State Nittany Lions’ assistant coach Tony Beck, among others.
“Every time I go to a meet at home, my mom tells me she’s going to invite as many people as she can. It kind of gets me worried at first, it’s almost like a little bit more pressure, but that really wasn’t the case this time,” Zakutney said. “This was probably the most people my parents have ever invited to a meet, so I was really sceptical at first, but if anything, it kind of just made me more relaxed.”
Zakutney said when he competes he can hear the external noise around him and is aware of it, but he tries not to focus “too much” on it and goes into an “autopilot” type mode.
Though Zakutney claimed victory, he admits he was a little “skeptical” before the championships, due to everything that was going on in his life at the time, including finishing his earlier gymnastics season with Penn State and finishing up his spring semester, before starting summer courses.
“I took a bit of down time from practice and getting back into shape was definitely the roughest part. Routines were a little hard and I was really tired and I was kind of worried as to how it was going to go, but the last few days of practice before I left [for nationals], I definitely felt pretty good, things were working out so I started getting a little more confidence,” Zakutney said.
According to Zakutney, training for the championships started off minimal, which then lead to working on skills, incorporating circuit conditioning, maintenance, practising routines and polishing half routines, afternoon practices, early morning workouts a few times per week and ultimately getting acquainted with having to compete all six routines on the same day.
“[It was] a good three week period of hunkering down. It wasn’t much for me to technically improve on… muscle memory was there from competing so often in the season so it was really just a matter of getting back into shape and then from there it was like I was back to where I was,” Zakutney said.
Zakutney said now that the championships are finished, his practice is more so a “recovery period”.
“[I’m] doing the minimum to stay active,” Zakutney said.
Next up for Zakutney is potentially being selected to competed on the team heading to the Pam American games in Peru at the end of July, world championships trials at the end of August and possibly making the team, which would then head over to Germany for the championships in October.
“That’s kind of my plan for the rest of the year,” Zakutney said, with making Canada’s next Olympic team still his number one priority.
Other competitors from the Ottawa region included three Rideau Gymnastics’ members, Jaiman Lawrence, who placed 51st in the senior division, Aidan Li, who finished 17th in the Junior 16-17 division, and Nathanael Teng, who came in 3rd place in the National Open category. Ottawa Gymnastics Centre’s (OGC) Jenna Lalonde, the only Ottawa female contestant, finished 8th in the High Performance Novice category.