First-time national champion keeps eyes glued to Olympic prize

Athletes compete in the MAG SR division at the 2019 Artistic Gymnastics Canadian Championships at Carleton University in Ottawa, ON. May 2019. (Photo: Scott Grant/GymCan)

By Melissa Novacaska

Sam Zakutney is having a successful run this gymnastics season, most recently winning the top prize during the 2019 Artistic Gymnastics Canadian Championships.

Held in his hometown of Ottawa, the event ran from May 21 to 26 and featured 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, Zakutney won his first senior all-around gold medal with a score of 83.400.

“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 in the fall, represents the Ottawa Gymnastics Centre at events held here in Canada.

The prospect of his victory felt “odd” at first, but he says he felt on his game as the event progressed and him winning came to fruition.

Something that made his title win extra special was the amount of people Zakutney was able to share the moment with, having the championships held at Carleton University’s fieldhouse. Zakutney’s own cheer squad included family, friends and 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 skeptical at first, but if anything, it kind of just made me more relaxed.”

Zakutney said now that the national championships are finished, he’s in a sort-of recovery period.

“[I’m] doing the minimum to stay active,” Zakutney said.

Next up for Zakutney is potentially being selected to compete on the team heading to the Pam American Games in Peru at the end of July, then the trials for the world championships at the end of August, which if he qualifies for, would lead to him to Germany to take on the best in the world in October.

“That’s kind of my plan for the rest of the year,” Zakutney said, with making Canada’s next Olympic gymnastics team still his number one priority.

“Nothing would make me happier than to represent Canada at the most prestigious multi-sport [event],” Zakutney said.

According to Gymnastics Canada’s webpage, there are a number of steps Zakutney will need to take to secure a spot on Canada’s team at the 2020 Tokyo Games.

His next opportunity comes at October’s world championships.

“At the end of the qualification competition, the nine remaining team places will be awarded along with 12 places for men and 20 for women, which will be decided by the rankings in the all-around competition. Additionally, the three top gymnasts in each apparatus final in Stuttgart [where the world championships are held], excluding those from qualified teams, will also book their Olympic ticket,” the webpage said.

There is also another chance for those competing in the specialist division, which is open to gymnasts who are some of the best in the world at one or two of the six routines that men compete in.

The next opportunity for those gymnasts after the world championships is at the Apparatus World Cup series, which is a series of events that began last November and run until March 2020.

“The four women’s and six men’s winners on each apparatus – a ranking decided by taking the best three results of each participant in the series – will be Tokyo-bound (on the condition that these gymnasts have not participated in the qualification of their team),” the Gymnastics Canada webpage said.

The final few opportunities available to athletes to qualify for a shot at the Olympics is at the 2020 FIG Artistic Gymnastics World Cup series, as well as at the various continental championships held during the spring of next year.

According to Forget, this year’s world championships is when Gymnastics Canada hopes to decide both its men’s and women’s artistic Olympic gymnastics team.

Though making the Games is a dream for Zakutney, he said there’s more to it than that.

“I’d be a lot happier if we competed successfully as a team,” Zakutney said. “I really just want to be one of the guys that helps put Canada back on top as one of the superior countries [in gymnastics and] back to where it [once] was.”

With the “tremendous” support from his family, friends, coaches and school, Zakutney said the sport has given him “a lot more confidence,” and has allowed him to become better at handling pressure and be more disciplined and devoted to a number of things in his life, including school work.

“There’s never a dull moment, there’s always something new you can do, there’s something more that happens that makes you feel like you’re superhuman and I think that that rush, that feeling is what I really love about the sport. It never dies down, it’s always as exciting,” Zakutney said.

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