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HIGH ACHIEVERS: Deceased gymnastics coach Sasha Zavadych made Ottawa Olympic hopeful Sam Zakutney see his potential

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Tribute to Sasha Zavadych on the entrance window at Ottawa Gymnastics Centre. Photo: Dan Plouffe

By Martin Cleary

Sam Zakutney meant to contact former coach Oleksandr Sasha Zavadych sooner to wish him a happy retirement. But his engineering assignments at Penn State University weighed heavily on his mighty shoulders.

But there was that one day in the fall, when the Olympic-aspiring artistic gymnast from Ottawa found a moment to start the process. “I sent him a message, but I didn’t get a response,” Zakutney said in a recent interview.

“It’s not that I wasn’t thinking of him. I hadn’t formally wished him a good trip back (to Ukraine). I was overwhelmed as my assignments were piling up. He was always good to me,” he added.

Zakutney, 22, couldn’t remember the time frame when he messaged Zavadych. But his most influential mentor was probably confronting a serious health crisis at the time, a few months after retiring as Ottawa Gymnastics Centre’s men’s head coach.

Zavadych was probably unable to respond to Zakutney’s message because he had contracted COVID-19, after returning home to his family following his 20-year stay in Canada, including five years at the Ottawa Gymnastics Centre (2015-20) and more than five years with the Corona School of Gymnastics.

Honoured with the 2020 Stan Stenoff Career Coaching Award by Gymnastics Ontario, Zavadych passed away in October from the symptoms of the coronavirus. He was 65.

In a press release announcing his coaching award, Gymnastics Ontario praised Zavadych for a “well-rounded approach to coaching, paying attention not only to the gymnastics skills, but also to their mental and emotional growth, allowing them to be successful inside and outside of the gym.”

National team gymnast Sam Zakutney with coach Sasha Zavadych in background. File photo

When Zakutney first met Zavadych at the National Capital Competitive Boys’ Gymnastics Club, which was part of the Corona School of Gymnastics, he was only 11. In the eight years they worked together, Zakutney became an elite gymnast.

During their athlete-coach relationship, Zakutney won numerous Canadian youth all-around titles and individual medals, earned an athletic scholarship to Penn State and competed for Canada at the 2017 World University Games.

As the 2017-18 Big-Ten Conference freshman of the year developed his roots at Penn State, his contact with Zavadych waned. But when Zakutney returned to the Ottawa Gymnastics Centre for brief summer training, they would reconnect.

“I could have made a better effort to keep in touch, but other things got in the way,” Zakutney added. “When I (summer) trained at OGC, we’d catch up. But ever since the summer of 2017, we didn’t engage that much and I regret it now.”

The 2019 Canadian artistic gymnastics championships were staged in Ottawa and Zakutney was hoping Zavadych would be on his support team. But Zavadych declined because of stomach illness. It would have been a shining moment for both.

Zakutney, who had competed in the 2018 world championships, won his first Canadian senior men’s all-around title, gold medals in the individual vault, parallel bars and horizontal bar and silver on the floor exercise.

“He was upset that he couldn’t be there, but was pleased with my results,” Zakutney said. “He taught me discipline and thinking for myself. When I was younger, I was stubborn. I saw gymnastics as a fun-time getaway.”

When Zavadych first became Zakutney’s coach, he wanted “to go back to my basics because they weren’t suitable for my progression.” Zakutney wasn’t keen on the idea, but in retrospect he “saw great improvements.

“He gave me confidence to try to make new strides. He exposed me to national-team coaches, national-team members, helped me make a name for myself and make the national junior squad.”

Zavadych was a calm and quiet coach, but Zakutney said it took time to get used to his style. “He knew how to make jokes, but it was a very professional relationship. I was comfortable and trusted him. He knew how much to say.

“He opened my eyes to the potential I had. He taught me to be diligent. He moulded me to become very disciplined and determined for my age. I owe it to him. He taught me to sharpen my mind.”

Christmas is a time when Zakutney thinks of his former coach. The Zakutney family had invited Zavadych to their home on past Christmas Eves to celebrate the special time. Zavadych’s family members remained in the Ukraine during his two decades in Canada.

Zakutney will take last shot at Tokyo Olympics in May

Team Canada gymnast Sam Zakutney. File photo

By graduating from Penn State in a virtual ceremony on Dec. 19 with BSc degrees in biomechanical and mechanical engineering, Zakutney now has the opportunity to become a full-time gymnast for the next five months.

Canada can earn an extra quota sport for the 2021 Olympics at the 2021 Pan Am championships in May, if one of the national-team gymnasts finishes in the top two all-around. Zakutney has his eye on making the grade.

At the 2019 Pan-Am Games, Zakutney helped Canada win team bronze and was 4th in the horizontal bar final. But his 2019-20 university season got off to a slippery start, when he fell on ice and sprained an ankle the day before the first meet.

“Now, I can give a full effort to gymnastics,” said Zakutney, who hopes to train at Laval Excellence in January. “I also plan to stay well into the next quad, definitely train until 2024. By my mid 20s, I will know if I have peaked.”

Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for over 47 years. A past Canadian sportswriter of the year and Ottawa Sports Awards Lifetime Achievement in Sport Media honouree, Martin retired from full-time work at the Ottawa Citizen in 2012, but continued to write a bi-weekly “High Achievers” column for the Citizen/Sun.

When the pandemic struck, Martin created the “Stay-Safe Edition” to provide some positive news during tough times, via his Twitter account at first and now here at

Martin can be reached by e-mail at and on Twitter @martincleary.

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