Nassim Varasteh

It had been well over a year since Daniel Gaysinsky last stepped in the ring, and with the strict COVID-19 restrictions in Ontario it was nearly impossible to attend any domestic or international training camps.

Unlike many countries who have centralised programs, this was not our reality in Canada. The majority of athletes found themselves training alone in their clubs with limited or no partners. Some athletes were forced to be resourceful and create training spaces in their homes. 

None of these things seemed to phase Daniel, he trusted entirely in his training and preparation despite the novel situation. He also trusted entirely in his coaches and those who had been supporting him unconditionally over the years leading up this last-chance qualification event. Sharing in his journey, his partner Melissa Bratic would also be competing at the Olympic qualification event in Paris. She was his primary training partner throughout the pandemic. Melissa qualified to the top-four group in her category, just one placement shy of qualification for Tokyo.

Paris was the last stop along a three-year rocky road to qualify the Olympic Games. Over the years there had been many victories and upsets. There had also been injuries and surgeries which are typical in combat sports, however the effects had become compounded and amplified in the regular qualification period during which the competitions were only weeks apart from one another, often on different continents, and allowed for very little recovery time between events.

Daniel arrived in Paris knowing he had committed himself entirely to his goal, there were no shortcuts taken, everything that could have been done had been. He planned thoroughly and implemented a very methodical and intelligent approach in his preparation for his last shot at the Games.

He went in with the mindset that he had everything to gain and nothing to lose.

Daniel Gaysinsky, right, qualified for Tokyo 2020 in dramatic fashion ©WKF
Daniel Gaysinsky, right, qualified for Tokyo 2020 in dramatic fashion ©WKF

The men’s over-75 kilograms category was the last event of the qualification event. Daniel suffered an upset after losing in the first round to Saudi Arabia's Tareg Hamedi. At first Daniel was discouraged, as one would expect. However, he continued to patiently follow his opponent through the elimination rounds. At the conclusion of the elimination rounds the Saudi athlete made it through to the finals, and this meant Daniel had a shot to work his way back up later through the repechage. It was another chance! He was determined to be in the finals, and he would not let this opportunity slip away.""I’m going to get it", he said to us, with a convincing certainty. 

The quality of his training and preparation were made evident as he won five consecutive matches with only three minutes of rest between each bout. During the repechage Daniel defeated Lithuania, the Dominican Republic, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Hungary. It was an exhausting climb, but he demonstrated superiority over all his opponents and thus won his way into the final group - four karateka in a round-robin. Of the four athletes who qualified for the round-robin, only three would go on to qualify for the Olympics.

The round-robin matches were very challenging and difficult. There were some minor injuries sustained during his six previous matches, at no point did it deter him. After two losses in the round-robin, we sent him into his last match knowing he needed a victory - even a tie would put him in fourth position in the group and he would not qualify for the Games. It was all or nothing.

Daniel controlled the final match against the Dutch athlete, Tyron Lardy. In the last minute of the match the Dutch athlete managed to equalise the bout at 3-3. Daniel however still had the senshu - first-point advantage - which would give him the win the in the event of a draw.

In the final three seconds of the bout the corner referee called a foul against Daniel for exiting the tatami. In that moment, with three seconds left in the match, the first-point advantage was lost, and so was his chance the qualify for Tokyo. At the end of the bout the referees declared a tie match, and this put Daniel in fourth position, just one position short of qualification. Many viewers in Canada, including Daniel’s club coach Roman Saltikov, stopped watching the live feed, it was unbelievable. It truly seemed as though the Olympic dream was lost. 

I had been watching the match from the staging area in the stadium, and I recall clearly that while viewing the match on the live stream I was quite taken aback from the last foul. I was not convinced that a foul had been committed. In fact, a quick review from a single angle of footage would reveal that he did not go out of bounds. I took swift action to communicate with coach Kraig Devlin, who was coaching from the chair, that we needed to urgently initiate an official protest to contest the foul. For reference, having an official protest in a final match is a very rare occurrence in karate. What’s even more rare is being successful. In this case however, we were succeeded.

Once the officials reviewed the footage, they determined that the foul had not been committed. In an unusual and captivating turn of events, the two athletes were brought back into the ring. The time was set to three seconds remaining in the bout. Most importantly the foul was overturned, and Daniel regained his first-point advantage. All he needed to do now was maintain his lead or score another in the remaining three seconds of the bout. Daniel completed the match triumphantly and even managed to land a head kick, which wasn't scored. 

The emotions were overwhelming, as Daniel stated in a post-match interview the feeling was indescribable. It was an uphill battle from beginning to end, but on this day our athlete made history and qualified for Karate’s debut in the Olympic Games. I’m extremely proud of what Daniel and our National Federation has achieved. This journey is far from over, and the objective is and has always been to reign as Olympic champion. A goal which requires nothing less than meticulous planning and execution, tactical discipline, determination and last but not least courage.