Alex Averbukh: "I'll miss pole vaulting until the day I die"
|Israeli pole vault icon Alex Averbukh.
His first victory was especially poignant as it was achieved in Munich, just a few weeks ahead of the 30th anniversary of the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes and coaches when the same German city was the host of the 1972 Olympic Games.
Averbukh also won at the 2000 European Athletics Indoor Championships and took the silver medal at the 2001 World Championships. He holds the Israeli record with 5.93m, which he cleared in Madrid in 2003.
In an exclusive interview with European Athletics, Averbukh reflects on his career and especially his European Athletics Championships victories, as well as what it might take to join him on the continental role of honour.
The 2012 European Athletics Championships, which will be held in Helsinki from 27 June – 1 July.
Q: What is Alex Averbukh doing now, three years after he retired?
A: I'm working with the Israeli national athletics team as the coordinator of a special project which is looking towards the European Athletics Championships in Helsinki and then the Olympic Games. In addition, I founded a new athletic club in Israel two years ago-
Q: Does you ever feel like picking up a pole again and how much do you he miss the competitive side of the sport?
A: I will always miss vaulting, yesterday, today, even now as I think and talk about it. In fact, I'll miss it until my last day on this planet. For me, it was action every minute, that's now gone and I try to fill it's absent on a daily basis. The competitive part of top-level athletics and pole vaulting is the thing I miss the most since everything was clear and defined; while in life, there is a lot of uncertainty.
Q: What will you be doing during this year's European Athletics Championships in Helsinki?
A: I'll be in Helsinki watching what is happening. When our pole vaulter Jillian Schwartz is competing, I'll be sitting next to her coach.
Q: How frustrating was it to miss the 2005 World Championships, which were also in Helsinki, due to injury; especially when you had competed in the same stadium just a few weeks before?
A: It was very frustrating particularly, as I look back, I now know 5.65m would have enough for the bronze medal. It's clear for me that I could have reached the podium there. The only consolation was that Pavel Gerasimov, my good friend from earlier days when we were members of the Russian squad together, (Averbukh was born in Siberia and became eligible to compete for Israel at the end of 1998) won the bronze medal.
Q: What are his own personal memories of the city of Helsinki and competing in the stadium?
A: I remember a beautiful and open stadium. It was, and I am sure still is, very distinctive. The city was a very clean one and the people seemed very open and friendly. However, Kuortane is the place I remember the best in Finland. I vaulted there and set a stadium record of 5.85m, which I think is still the record. I dream of going back there one day, hopefully with my athletes as well.
Q: What were the differences between your two European Athletics Championships victories?
A: To be honest, I didn't prepare specifically towards the 2002 Championships in Munich 2002 while, ahead of Göteborg, I had planned how I was going to win a medal six months in advance with a precise day-by-day programme.
Each victory came with a different feeling. In Munich, I was still an athlete driven just by serious ambition; whereas in Göteborg, I won the gold medal thanks to my experience as an athlete, understanding every aspect of the tactics and mental preparations required.
In the summer before the 2002 Championships, I hadn't spent much time in Israel, besides competing at the national championships which I won with 5.71m. The month before Munich, I had competitions all over Europe, but unfortunately none in Israel. I also didn't understand Hebrew so well at that stage, so I didn't read newspapers and had no connections what so ever with the Israeli media. I arrived to Munich with clear mind, without any pressure, and was only with my family at the athletes' village.
As I started the final, I thought of my father and wanted to win the medal honouring his memory and that was the true reason I had tears in my eyes during the medal ceremony. Only few years later, I learned more fully about the legacy of the 11 Israeli Olympians that were murdered at the '72 Olympics; and it was only then that I understood more completely about what my win meant for the Israeli nation, coming 30 years after the sport biggest tragedy in history.
Ahead of Göteborg, the Israeli Athletic Association (IAA) supported me with everything that I asked for, although they never had much financially. In the end, I would like to think they got back what they invested in me. In addition, I then realized that I was one of only a few athletes in the history had won back-to-back European titles (and one of only four pole vaulters) and that I had joined an elite group.
Q: What advice would you give to pole vaulters in Helsinki?
A: Pay a lot of attention to the weather. Be calm and focus on every attempt separately. Do not, under any circumstances, at the earlier heights and remember you cannot get a medal if you don't reach the finals so be at your best in the qualification round.
Q: What are the possibilities of the European Athletics Championships best performance - set by Russia's Rodion Gataulin at 6.00m in 1994 when Helsinki last staged the event - being beaten this year?
A: First of all, I think (France's 2010 champion Renaud) Lavillenie has no chance breaking Rodion Gataullin's record. See, Gataullin was born and lived in St Petersburg. If you look at the map, you'll see that Helsinki and St Petersburg are almost on the same northern meridian; France, where Lavillenie was born, is much more southerly. So, Lavillenie, as good a pole vaulter as he is, has no chance of vaulting that high (in Helsinki).
As for the rest, I see no other European vaulters at the present time coming close to 6.00m there.
— Many thanks to Oren Bukstein of the Israeli Athletic Association for his help with this interview.