By Mark Etheridge
Glasgow Commonwealth Games gold medallist and Rio Olympian judoka Zack Piontek has ditched the international mat… for this year at least.
Piontek won the -90 kilogram division at the last Commonwealth Games in Scotland two years, the high point of an impressive career to date.
He went on to take part in the last African Games in Brazzaville, Congo two years ago where he won a bronze medal.
In Rio last year, he realised a lifelong dream by being included in Team South Africa but was left heartbroken as he lost to veteran Brazilian opponent Tiago Camilo in the first round.
Since his Commonwealth medal, Piontek’s life has moved on at pace and he married childhood sweetheart Cherese shortly after the African Games.
Explaining his decision to shelve competitive judo, Piontek, who turns 26 later this month, said: ‘I’ll take this year to decide what I want to do moving forward with my career.
‘I have many things to consider. I’m now married and my wife and I are looking towards kids in the near future.
‘I’ve also started working and must focus on my career. These are just two of a few factors that will impact my decision, something which I won’t take lightly.
‘I’ll still be doing judo training in a recreational manner. But no more international events. Maybe one or two domestic events just for fun.
‘Also, I’ll be getting more involved in coaching at my judo club and then after this year I’ll make an official announcement on my plans moving forward.’
The harsh reality for Piontek is that, like many so-called Cinderalla sports, there is very little money to make and although he is first to admit that he was privileged to have many official and unofficial sponsors that assisted him to compete around the world, there wasn’t much in the way of a guaranteed monthly salary.
Also there weren’t a huge range of training partners in his division and he often had to spend lengthy periods away from home to get top-notch training.
Reflecting on his career to date, Piontek is firmly of the opinion that he has been able to help take judo in South Africa to another level as he thanked the many people and parties responsible for his success to date.
‘It just wouldn’t have been possible without Tuks Judo Club and my coach Nikola Filipov, the HPC in Pretoria, Gauteng North Judo, Judo South Africa, Futurelife, SASCOC and Q-Bond.’
Elaborating on his Olympics and post-Rio journey he said: ‘In my particular case, the Olympics did not go according to plan. I managed to qualify and represent South Africa at the Games, but like you know, I lost my first match against the hosting country and that was it.
‘However, I did everything in my power to prepare for this event and I gave my best on the day. That day, I was unfortunately not the best. But the road to Rio was for myself and judo in this beautiful country, a leap forward.
‘The reason for this is simple. For a long time on the international circuit, when an opponent saw that he or she had drawn a SA athlete, they saw it as a nice warm-up match, or a “quick win”. But this has changed! In 2013 I won my first international gold that counted towards the IJF ranking system. However, it was a very weak tournament. So for me this did not really count.
‘But then in 2014 at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow I won gold. It was my real breakthrough and people started to remember my name. Since then the medals kept coming in on the international circuit. I even managed to get into the bronze final in Russia at a Grand Slam event in 2015.
‘I can go on, but the point I’m making is this: No more did my opponents see SA and think “nice and easy”. They knew this was going be a hard fight. And by constantly travelling for tournaments and performing at these events judo received a lot of exposure back in the South African media.
‘Judo in South Africa has been promoted much more than before and I hope this continues to be the case. So my road to Rio was great and it was only possible with everyone mentioned.’
In late 2015, another top SA judoka, 2012 Olympian and 2014 Commonwealth Games bronze medallist also retired from the sport. Earlier that year African Youth games medallist William Redpath and his mother and father William and Joan, top coach and administrators, emigrated to Australia.
Still, it’s not all doom and gloom for the judoka fraternity. At last month’s AUSC Region 5 Games in Luanda, Angola, the eight-strong judo squad contributed seven medals to the Team SA medal charge.