I first became aware of Israeli gymnasts when I received a subscription to International Gymnast as a bat mitzvah present. I had been involved in the sport for four years, and as I scanned down the competition results from the 1994 World Championships in Brisbane, Australia, I was surprised by the presence of one nationality shorthand: “ISR”. The gymnast’s name adjacent to it was Michal Shahaf. From then on, every time a new issue arrived, I’d look for that ISR, hoping that it wasn’t too far down the rankings. (For the record, Shahaf had some remarkable international results during her short career, including fifth place all-around and first place vault finishes at the 1993 Junior European Championships.)
Fast forward to 2009, when it wasn’t necessary to scan down to the bottom of the standings to find an ISR. Alexander Shatilov, 23, a native of Uzbekistan who immigrated to Israel in 2002, won third place in the World Championships floor exercise for the first Israeli Worlds medal in gymastics. In addition to the lanky Shatilov (he is six feet tall, defying both Jewish and gymnast height odds), who has been a mainstay in the floor exercises top eight since 2006, several Israeli gymnasts have competed for the upper echelon of NCAA gymnastics teams in the United States. One of those NCAA gymnasts is Noam Shaham, 25.
Shaham spent the past four years competing in a different blue and white: That of Penn State, where he was on the championship team during his freshman season. The Kfar Saba native earned All-American status in 2009, the year he graduated with a degree in engineering. Now back in Tel Aviv, he has noted to me the positive impact that Shatilov’s fame has had on the sport in Israel. “There seems to be a new atmosphere going on, with the respect and care we get, and with the amount of younger kids coming to practice,” he says.
Shaham (like Shatilov) will be representing Israel at the World Championships in Rotterdam, Holland, tomorrow. He hopes to compete in all six events, though he is presently hampered by an injured ankle. His contribution will be necessary if Israel is to place among the top 24 men’s teams, in turn allowing them to field a squad for the 2011 Worlds in Tokyo, in turn allowing them to qualify for the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. Shaham is reasonably confident that the Israelis can accomplish at least the first step. “I think that it is possible if we do our job,” he told me. “I really think that Israel can produce a competitive team as well as individuals.”
Shaham and his contemporaries—Shachar Tal (Ohio State), Asaaf Zoor (Temple University), and Felix Aronovich (Penn State)—followed the lead of gymnasts such as Yuval Ayalon, Roi Malkam, and Danny Ackerman, who were the first Israelis to attend these programs in the ’90s.
But Shaham holds the distinction of being the only Israeli gymnast with a skill named after him in the Code of Points (the bible of the sport). The Shaham is a release move performed on the high bar—a double back somersault with one-and-a-half twists. (The version with just a single full twist, the Kolman, is de rigeur in men’s gymnastics.) Though don’t expect to see him do it in Rotterdam. “It turns out that whoever invented this ‘Shaham’ thing is an idiot,” he playfully remarks. Yeah, sure:
Beyond this year’s World Championships, Shaham is optimistic about the prospects for Israeli gymnastics. “I really think we are heading in a good direction,” he tells me. “I think the key is developing good basics and work patterns with the younger gymnasts in order to build a future for the sport.” As for the institutional help that is necessary to improve in international standings, he notes a slight change in attitude. “Up until recently the rule of thumb was, ‘You show results, you get support.’ We can’t get stuck with this idea. If we think ahead and take care of our gymnasts, results will come.”