Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Gymnast Sam Zakutney can claim Paris 2024 ticket at this week’s Olympic trials in Gatineau

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By Dan Plouffe & Emma Zhao

Ottawa’s Sam Zakutney will return home with the chance to claim a Paris 2024 Olympic berth at next week’s Canadian Gymnastics Championships in Gatineau.

The 25-year-old will stay with his parents as he takes his shot at the dream he’s held since some of his earliest days with the local National Capital and Ottawa Gymnastics Centre clubs.

“In 2008, when I was first starting to really do gym, I was watching the Beijing Olympics on TV,” recalls Zakutney. “And my parents remember me always making little remarks on what some of the athletes were doing well, and what they weren’t doing well. So I already had that technical eye for the sport, I guess.”

Now, 16 years later, Zakutney is well-positioned to contend for one of five available places on the Canadian men’s artistic gymnastics team. The senior men’s high-performance competition will take place Thursday and Saturday evenings at Centre Slush Puppie.

“The Olympics are everything that I dreamed about,” underlines Zakutney, who won all-around youth national crowns each year from 2011-2013, plus many more event titles.

“It’ll give me the validation that it was all worth it,” he explains. “I mean, obviously, there are things that I look back on throughout my years, and I am happy that they happened for how they shaped me. But it is so close to be able to make it happen, and if I do, it’s gonna be crazy.”

Now based in Montreal and representing the Laval Excellence club, the Franco-Cité high school grad has been a full-time athlete since he graduated with an engineering degree from Penn State University, where his senior NCAA gymnastics season was cancelled by COVID’s arrival.

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“Even since I was a kid, it was always balancing school and gym, so I always had an outlet to distract myself with,” Zakutney notes. “Now that I have only gym going on, and no real studies or anything like that, it’s definitely more mentally soothing in a way.

“I don’t have any other real obligations outside of training to worry about, but at the same time, when gym doesn’t go well, there’s a lot more time to overthink in your head.”

That was especially true when Zakutney tore his ACL knee ligament in August 2021, half a year after moving to Montreal, where he usually trains out of the Canadian sport institute at Olympic Stadium.

“It was pretty rough,” recounts Zakutney, who was effectively bedridden for a long period after surgery, while COVID restrictions also kept him at home, and made scheduling follow-up appointments a pain.

“It definitely wasn’t easy, and it was quite long,” he indicates. “It was not an enjoyable part at all. But I had just made the move, so I knew that I wasn’t going to give up so quickly.”

Sam Zakutney. File photo

Zakutney returned in time to earn the chance to compete at the 2022 World Championships, where he helped Canada to a 10th-place team finish.

Then in May 2023 came another downswing when he ruptured his pectoral muscle, snapping it from his humerus during a cross on the rings event.

That caused him to miss out on the 2023 World Championships, but Canada placed seventh to claim a men’s team berth in the Paris Olympics, which meant he’d have an opportunity to get back in time to earn one of five available team positions.

While still on the comeback trail from injury, Zakutney skipped the rings event at February’s Elite Canada meet, the last major national competition before the upcoming Olympic team trials. He placed 16th all-around (though he likely would have been at least fourth overall had he recorded a score).

“I’ve accepted the role of being the more consistent, stable performer that can always get the job done,” indicates Zakutney, who enjoys a great relationship with other Team Canada contenders such as Félix Dolci, William Émard and René Cournoyer – Canada’s lone male gymnast to compete at Tokyo Olympics.

Sam Zakutney, 2024 Pacific Rim Championships. Photo: @samzak06 Instagram

Zakutney feels he’s now back to full health, and he’s returned to the rings, albeit with a less difficult routine than before his injury.

At the late-April Pacific Rim Championships in Colombia, he earned individual gold and bronze medals on high bar and floor, along with team silver.

“That was like a nice little pick-me-up from those few years of difficulties,” Zakutney signals. “Everybody has a different journey that they go on. It’s not always going to be how they want it written out.”

At the Canadian Championships, the top two men in the combined all-around standings from the Thursday and Saturday competitions will earn automatic selection to the Olympic team. Officials will determine the final three positions, plus a reserve, based on the lineup that is most likely to produce the strongest team score.

“If I can perform as well as I have been recently, I think I’ll put myself in a very good position to make that automatic selection,” signals Zakutney, who won his first senior men’s all-around title the last time he competed at home in 2019 at Carleton University.

“Training has been going pretty well. I’m feeling very consistent. I’m able to bang out pretty stellar routines, even on rougher days, so that definitely builds up the confidence,” he adds. “The body’s holding up well. Not too many aches or pains.

“I’m nervous of course, because this is make or break. It’s the opportunity to really make it all happen, so I’ve just gotta keep my head on straight, not anticipate anything, just keep my head down and do what I know I can do.”

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