Zack Piontek (Getty Images)
Cape Town - Zack Piontek’s Olympic dream is at a long last a reality and when he steps onto the mat in Rio on Wednesday (10 August) for his first ever Olympic judo fight, a father-and-son dream that started 14 years ago will become a reality.
He’ll take on the host nation’s Camilo Tiago at the Carioca Arena 2.
At 34, the Brazilian will be nine years older than Piontek. Piontek, who was the 2014 Commonwealth Champion (under-90kg) doesn’t predict he’ll win a medal, but he does promise that whoever his opponent is, they will not have an easy time of it.
With a little bit of luck he might even cause an upset.
For Piontek the Road to Rio started when he was 11 years old and his dad, Carl, called him aside after a judo practice to talk about the Olympic Games.
"I was made to understand that if I really buckled down and train hard I could one day represent South Africa at the Olympic Games," Piontek reportedly said to SASCOC website.
"At the time, I did not really know what my dad was talking about but the way he spoke about it made me realise that it was something big and special, a must do competition for any judoka who is serious about the sport."
To say that Piontek grew up on the judo mats won’t be an exaggeration.
His dad is a judo coach in Pretoria and from the age of five, the young Piontek went with him to the club. At first he just played around on the mats but it did not take long for the youngster to start mimicking what the older kids were doing and before long he was actively participating.
The first time Piontek proved that he had what it takes to compete against the best was in 2010 at the Commonwealth Championships in Singapore.
He won a gold medal in the junior category, as well as two bronze medals in the senior categories. What made his performance remarkable was that he broke the scaphoid bone in his wrist on the first day, but even that could not prevent him from continuing fighting for two more days.
"There was no way that I was going to quit. I had to make the most of the opportunity to compete against the world’s best."
According to Piontek, the real breakthrough moment in his career happened when he joined Tuks/HPC judo club. Under the guidance of Nikola Filipov, who represented Bulgaria in 1992 at the Olympic Games, he started to thrive.
‘Nikola is an amazing coach. What I really appreciate about him is the way he ensures that he stays up to date with what is happening in the world of international judo. He spends hours on the internet every day doing research. He sends emails to the coaches of top judokas or skype them to exchange ideas.
"In other words, Nikola goes out of his way to ensure that the training we get is exactly the same as that of most of the top judokas."
In the past 14 months, Piontek has twice managed to win silver medals at the African Championships. He also won a bronze medal at the Pan American Open World Cup in Lima and finished fifth in the Grand Slam in Tyumen.
When Piontek talks about judo, it’s clear that he’s passionate about his sport.
"I certainly don’t want to compete merely for the sake of competing. However, the sad truth is that judo is not a sport in which millions can be made. Trying to win an Olympic medal is a lone crusade with no guarantees."