Alex Averbukh has been retired for four years, but he never had any intention of missing out on this summer’s Maccabiah.
The 38-year-old two-time European pole vault champion officially ended his illustrious career after the 18th Maccabiah in 2009, but still has the craving to scale the top of the podium one more time, 12 years after winning his first and only gold medal at the Jewish Olympics.
“I decided to come back for three reasons,” Averbukh explained.
“The first being that I knew I have a chance to win a medal and even finish in first place. The second was to give our young jumpers added motivation to do well. And the third was so that my little girl can see me jump because she wasn’t born yet when I retired.”
Despite not undergoing an ideal preparation for the event, Averbukh believes he is capable of clearing a respectable height of five meters and win the competition at Hadar Yosef stadium in Tel Aviv.
“I haven’t managed to practice as much as I would have liked but I hope that it will prove to be enough,” he said.
“I really wanted to practice every day, but I haven’t got enough time as I have a day job and in the evenings I train young athletes at my club in Netanya.”
It is difficult to pick one highlight from Averbukh’s remarkable resume.
He was crowned European Champion twice in a row, in 2002 and 2006, and won silver and bronze medals at the World Championships in 2001 and 1999 respectively.
Averbukh also claimed the gold medal at the European Indoor Championships in 2000 and reached the final of the Olympic Games in 2004 and 2008.
Each and every one of these accomplishments is unprecedented by Israeli athletics standards and will likely remain unique for some time.
However, Averbukh brought to Israeli sports much more than just medals.
He was a model athlete both on and off the field.
Averbukh never entered a big competition as a favorite, but he always knew how to come up with his best jump when it counted most.
The Siberia native, who made Aliya in 1999, won all his major medals with jumps no better than 5.85 meters, and cleared just 5.70m, a mediocre jump by top international standards, to win the 2006 European gold.
Averbukh exhibited another of his rare traits in the championships in Goteborg, winning the competition with only two jumps. Throughout his career, Averbukh possessed perfect timing, passing on most heights and saving his energy for what he almost always correctly deemed to be the crucial jumps.
It should also come as little surprise that Averbukh trained as hard as anyone else in his sport. As a former decathlete he was as versatile as any other jumper in the world and he remained in perfect shape thanks to his arduous training regime.
There is, however, another side to Averbukh which most people never get to see.
Averbukh was a class act in competition, but is just as impressive away from the track. In his first years in Israel many were put off by his poor Hebrew and automatically categorized him as another athlete who had only made Aliya because he isn’t good enough to represent his country of birth.
But Averbukh was and remains a true Zionist and no one dared to doubt his motives for making Aliya after he was awarded the gold medal at the 2002 European Championships in Munich.
In one of the most memorable moments in Israeli sports history, Averbukh wept uncontrollably while wrapped in an Israel flag when the national anthem was playing at the Munich Olympic Stadium, almost 30 years to the day to the murder of the 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Games.
He will be competing against athletes less than half his age in the Maccabiah, including up-and-coming Israeli talents, 18-year-old Itamar Basteker and 19-year-old Lev Skorish, with the latter being coached by Averbukh.
Like his coach, Skorish also moved to Israel from Irkutsk in Siberia and Averbukh believes he has a bright future ahead of him.
“We have some kids who are currently beginning to clear five meters and they are the future of the sport in Israel,” he said.
“Lev Skorish has already jumped five meters and Itamar Basteker has a best of 4.90m. Skorish just broke the Israeli Cadet record by 30 centimeters and has the eighth best result in the world in his age group. He is the future and he needs to be given the proper support now before it is too late. This is the time to set the foundation for long term success.”
Despite being desperate to taste golden glory one last time, Averbukh admitted that he wouldn’t be too disappointed at finishing second to his pupil.
“I’ll be happy if Skorish beats me,” he claimed. “I understand that he and the other youngsters have a better chance than me. It will be very interesting to see what unfolds. To see what I’m worth after four years of doing absolutely nothing. My recent training is more of a warm-up but I almost cleared 4.50m in May and with a little bit of effort I can give the youngsters a fight and even jump five meters.”
However, as important as the competition may be, Averbukh recognizes that the Maccabiah is about so much more.
“When I realized the magnitude of the Maccabiah and saw how well it was being organized I decided that this would be the right place to make my comeback,” he noted.
“I think that the Maccabiah is a gift to Israeli sports. The sporting level may not always be that high, but the level of organization sets a new standard for Israeli sports. I also really love the idea that sport can help bring together people from all across the world.”
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