–By Michael Sun
Fresh off of his first appearance at the Artistic Gymnastics World Championships, Sam Zakutney is more confident than ever.
The Ottawa gymnast was part of a Team Canada squad that finished in 18th place and is now competing in his third year as a member of the Penn State Nittany Lions.
“It was super cool. It was very interesting,” he said of the world championships. “I thought I’d be a lot more nervous but I really wasn’t. I felt pretty poised. It was a point where you feel like you should have been [crapping] your pants when you were training alongside some of the best gymnasts in the world.”
Instead, he said he felt confident and composed. “When I got there, I felt like I’m here. I made it. The work’s paid off and I’m actually here with the best,” he recalled.
The junior is far from the gymnast that he was as a freshman at Penn State.
“I wasn’t really that good of a competitor, I didn’t really have much of a trust in myself so I would always make a bunch of stupid mistakes,” he said. “I would never really compete with the utmost confidence.”
While growing up in the nation’s capital, Zakutney trained with the Canada Elite program and lived a life very dedicated to gymnastics. He said he was very quiet and reserved, something that came with challenges.
“I think the worst part was just not socializing with anybody that much and then it felt like even though I was on a much different path than everybody, it kind of made me feel like an outcast a bit,” he said.
“In retrospect, (compared) to everyone else’s life, even though mine was a lot more exciting, it just felt like mine was boring at the same time,” he added.
His attitude changed as he continued to progression to competitions on the international level. At 16 years old he joined the national team. “That just assured me that I’m doing the right thing,” he said.
Zakutney said he changed personally, as well, after arriving at Penn State.
“From that point on, gymnastics overall was just a little bit more enjoyable and I actually looked forward to competing as opposed to high school when I was super anxious all the time,” he noted.
Zakutney remembers a particular moment in his first year of NCAA gymnastics when his team hosted Ohio State’s for a meet. Despite being “super nervous” before the competition, he ended the meet with a successful performance on the high bars.
“There was a great routine and then I stuck my dismount and then the entire hall just roared and that was probably the best feeling that I ever felt in my life,” Zakutney recalled. “And after that point, I was like yeah, this was the right decision and I’m really going to enjoy this. And ever since then, I have.”
Zakutney said his enjoyment “comes from training and competing for somebody other than myself” – his teammates, whom he had never felt about in the same way before developing the bond that he has with his fellow gymnasts at Penn State.
“For the most part, it was hard. It wasn’t that enjoyable, training on my own and having the self-discipline…and not really know what’s going on,” he said. “Now that I’m here, it’s like I have 18 other brothers to push and they push me. It’s just a great change.”
With a world championships appearance behind him, Zakutney maintains that his ultimate goal in the sport is to compete at the Olympic Games.
“It’s what everybody expects in a way…and the more the people ask it, the less convinced you become that you’ll actually reach it,” he said.
Coaches from Canada’s men’s and women’s artistic gymnastic teams at the world championships said prior to the competition that the selected athletes are an early projection of who could represent Canada at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. Zakutney was one of just six men who were eligible to compete for Canada at the world championships. He was also the youngest athlete on Canada’s men’s team.