20:30 PM

No days off

MEMS Student Zachary Kushnir is training to become the nation’s top athlete for karate

Zachary Kushnir has Olympic-level dreams. And for him, they just might become a reality. 

In addition to being a top student, Kushnir, a senior majoring in mechanical engineering at the University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering, is training to become the nation’s top athlete in karate. Kushnir has been practicing karate since elementary school, while his dad runs a dojo – a school for karate – in his native New York. Kushnir studied under his father until entering the Swanson School in 2019. 

Nearly every day of the week for Kushnir is dedicated to training to compete in the upcoming Karate World Championships, while also being a full-time student. Kushnir’s average daily schedule looks like this: 

Wake up, run, class, research, eat lunch, more class, home, dinner, drive to the dojo, train with a US team sensei, drive back, do homework, sleep, and repeat. 

If he doesn’t have training at the dojo that day, he commits to an average hour and a half workout in his home gym. 

“I don’t really give myself days off,” Kushnir said. 

Zachary Kushnir

The Karate World Championships, held every two years, are the highest level of competition for the centuries-old sport. To qualify, athletes must place first at the US Team Trials. There’s also the Pan American Championships, another prestigious level of competition that requires a first or second placing at the US Team Trials. Kushnir, who has a demonstrated history of success in the sport, has come close to qualifying for the Pan American Champions in the past, being just one fight away from it at last year’s trials. 

Although karate was included in the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan, it isn’t on the program (somewhat controversially) for the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris, France. Even so, competing in the Olympics for Team USA is one of Kushnir’s ultimate goals.

“That’s what all of this hard work is going toward,” Kushnir said. 

With Kushnir’s busy schedule, he hasn’t had the opportunity to join any clubs on campus other than a fraternity; however, one of his more immediate goals at Pitt is to complete his bachelor's degree at the Swanson School.

Kushnir became drawn to engineering in high school. Despite his heavy schedule of nationwide karate tournaments and practices, he managed to keep a high GPA and courses related to engineering. 

At the Swanson School, he completed a co-op at Acutronic Group and is now working in Professor Sachin Valenkar’s lab in the Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering. Kushnir’s research is focused on the mechanics of inflation on plastic tubes. 

“He’s sharp academically and talented in the lab,” Valenkar said. 

Karate helped prepare Kushnir for the rigorous academic expectations of an engineering curriculum. Kushnir said there’s a lot of similarities between karate and engineering. 

“In both engineering and karate, you can’t advance until you’ve mastered the basics.” 

Kushnir said he hopes to have a career in engineering as well as continue practicing karate once he graduates. He’s said he’s used to the busy schedule. 

“I can’t see myself doing one without the other,” he said.