By Kieran Heffernan
Sam Zakutney’s journey to the Olympic Games has not been simple, and, it will still be almost another year before he finds out if he’ll reach his ultimate goal.
The Ottawa gymnast’s first chance to qualify was with the rest of Canada’s men’s team through the World Championships. First, the team had to qualify for the 2019 Worlds, which took place this past October, by placing in the top 24 at the 2018 Worlds. Then, to secure an Olympic spot, they needed to come in the top 9 in 2019. Canada’s men’s team fell short, finishing in 17th.
“I was pretty disappointed. I was a little upset,” Zakutney said. “I knew we had a good chance. I knew that if we had done all of our routines as great as we could have done them, as clean as could be, very minimal deductions, we would have had a decent chance to make it in the top 9.”
He acknowledged that it would take a lot of time for the team to become competitive enough for a podium finish, but he did believe they had a decent day nonetheless. There weren’t any major falls, and few big deductions, but the small ones added up.
Plus, the team’s routines weren’t at the same “insane calibre” as some of the higher-ranked countries, according to Zakutney.
“That’s the one thing with trying to perform easier routines, is that you really can’t afford any little mistakes,” said the Ottawa Gymnastics Centre athlete.
His teammate, René Cournoyer, did qualify for the Olympics based on his individual performance at the 2019 World Championships. Zakutney’s next chance to win a personal slot will be attempting to fill one of the continental quotas, which he has the chance to do at the Pan Am Championships that are now scheduled to take place in May 2021. There he’ll be up against powerhouse American athletes, as well as usually in-Olympic contention gymnasts from Brazil.
In order to stay optimistic after less-than-hoped-for results, Zakutney is looking to the future.
“I know that’s not going to be my last time at Worlds, or at least that’s not the last time I’m working towards it,” he said. He hopes to keep training for the 2024 Olympics as well, by which time “I’ll have physically peaked and I’ll know whether to say, okay, I don’t think I’m going to get any better than this. I’ll have to consider, is it even worth it to keep going, (or is it time to) take my engineering career a little more seriously.”
Zakutney is anticipating graduating from his engineering program at Penn State in December. It was with the Nittany Lions that the Ottawa native first competed in a true team setting, as part of its varsity group.
“I’d never fully embraced the idea of competing with a team, especially since gymnastics is a very individual sport, so I was very skeptical at first, but I wanted to give it a try,” Zakutney said. He was happy to find himself for the first time surrounded by 20 or so guys who were training and competing at his level.
“They finally gave me a very close family to grind with, and I couldn’t have asked for a better group of brothers. They’re people I’m going to remember and cherish for the rest of my life.”
Zakutney’s blood family is also incredibly important to him. He estimates there was “pretty much an entire stand” full of his relatives at the 2019 National Championships in Ottawa (which he won 1st place at). His father flew with him to Lima for the Pan Am Games that summer, while his mother went with him to Germany for the Worlds in October. When his younger sister’s University of Wisconsin volleyball team was playing in Pittsburgh, Zakutney took the bus down from State College (the municipality where Penn State is located) to see her.
“They go above and beyond to support me. There are not enough words to describe how grateful I am for them,” he said.
The COVID-19 pandemic has created some difficulties for Zakutney. It wasn’t until mid-June that he was able to train at a gym again.
“It took a good two weeks of this to kind of get back into the swing of things. It felt very off,” he said. “I’m just trying to establish that confidence again since some of the skills required a little more time and confidence to get back than others. So I’m slowly getting my way back there.
Despite some setbacks, Zakutney said he knows there’s a lot more to come.
“I’m still young, I’m still 21 and I still have a lot of years ahead of me,” he said. “I think I’ve established a name for myself and I’m very, very happy about that.”