Alex Averbukh: Up … and Over  
On July 15, the athletic career of one of Israel’s best athletes came to a close. It was the first day of competition in track and field at the Maccabiah Games. Among the pole vaulters was Aleksandr (Alex) Averbukh, whose titles included: bronze medal at the 2001 World Championships, silver medal at the 2002 World Championships, and European champion in 2002 and 2006.

As his name was announced, Averbukh cleared his first jump, then he grabbed an Israeli flag that was nearby and ran up and down the track, waving to the cheering crowd, and signaling his retirement from active competition.

“Knowing that was going to be my last jump, I was kind of nervous,” Averbukh told JewishSport.org. “I was kind of nervous – wanting to be sure I wasn’t going to miss. That put pressure on me and made it somewhat difficult, even though the bar was set at a relatively low height. Still, for me it was the same as if it had been the world championships. But once I cleared the bar there was a sense of relief and closure – like, OK, now that’s done. Now I need to move on to the next chapter of my life.”

“Of course it was a tough moment. I gave 25 years of my life to athletics – the last 10 years at the highest level of national competition. There were a lot of feelings going through my mind,” he noted.

The 34-year-old Averbukh started to think about retiring after last year’s Olympics, where he represented Israel. “I had incurred a variety of injuries, and I could feel my body saying, ‘Okay, Alex, that’s it… ’ I knew I would retire one day, that I wouldn’t still be jumping at age 40 – at least not with good results. I felt it was better to leave when I was on top.”

“I was competing in the Super Grand Prix earlier this season and I had a feeling of emptiness inside. That was when I knew it was time to call it quits. I just couldn’t see myself competing without the desire.”

Alex then decided that he would close his career at the Maccabiah Games. “I wanted to leave the sport in Israel.”

Alex’s journey began 34 years earlier in the Siberian city of Irkutsk. It was there that his grandfather, a WWII veteran, was sent to convalesce from war-time injuries, married a local woman, and raised a family. Sometime later, the grandfather left his family and returned to Moscow. Both of Alex’s parents were athletes, and so the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. As a youngster, Alex spent summers in sports programs. “My friends would go out of town to visit their grandparents for the summer, but I stayed home and trained,” he said. “At the time, I didn’t know that I would become an accomplished athlete, but I worked hard and got good results – which is why, to this day, I try to impress upon young athletes the importance of committing to working hard every day. Whoever works hard daily will reap the rewards of his effort and make progress. It is only through hard work that I accomplished what I did in my career. As a child growing up, I saw my father – who had become a coach – working with his athletes, and I saw what it took to excel. So when my friends were off having summer holidays, I was spending my days in training.”

Alex blossomed into a promising athlete, and in 1997 went on to become the Russian champion in the decathlon and the European under-23 decathlon champion. By the following year, Alex had made the decision to concentrate on the pole vault.

While his athletic career continued on course, his personal life began a new chapter.

“When I was 21 or 22, I met my grandfather for the first time, and that is when I learned that he was Jewish and that I have Jewish roots. Later I learned that there was the possibility to move to Israel, and I decided to do so in the hopes of making a better life for myself and my family. My choice was based both on my feelings of being Jewish, and also my hope that in Israel I would have more support to pursue my athletic goals – I would say at the time these two considerations had equal weight.”

Averbukh had made an earlier visit to Israel, to take part in the Israel Track and Field Championships, at which time he began to explore with the Track and Field Federation the possibility of making aliyah, and what that might entail.

At age 25, Alex arrived as an oleh in 1999. “Everything wasn’t exactly rosy, but I got down to training, first at the Wingate Institute, and then at the track in Hadar Yosef, just north of Tel Aviv.” Within months of his arrival, Alex broke the Israeli national record in pole vault with a jump of 5.80 meters (19’ ¼”), about 1 ½” more than the previous record.

Shortly thereafter, Alex represented Israel in the World Championships in Spain, where he took the bronze medal, the first Israeli to ever medal in this competition. Afterwards he commented, “I understand that my achievement brought joy to Israel, and that makes me very happy.” 

  Meanwhile, Alex and his wife struggled with the rigors of adjusting to life in a new country. “Of course, when I arrived, I didn’t speak any Hebrew. Added to this, my coaches were themselves Russian olim, with whom I spoke Russian. I speak Russian at home, not only because it is easier, but also to see that my daughters will grow up speaking Russian (Alex and his wife have two daughters, a 14-year-old aspiring ballet dancer, and a 6 year old). Till today, it is not easy for me to speak Hebrew. The first three years were really tough, and later on I took private lessons for half a year. Even now I speak Russian about 85% of the time, but finally it is getting to be easier.”

In 2002, Alex participated in the Sydney Olympics, where he came in 10th place in the pole vault. In 2002, Alex took first place in pole vault at the European Championships, marking the first time that an Israeli ever won gold in that competition’s history. This occurred during a time that Israel was hit with a string of suicide bomber attacks, and after his victory, Alex dedicated his medal “to my father (who died the previous year) and to the people of Israel… because the news from there is not so good.”

By the end of 2002, Alex was ranked no. 4 in the world, and claimed the top spot in the sport by mid-2003, highlighted by clearing 5.93m (19’ 5 ½”), the best jump of his career, at the Super Grand Prix in Madrid, However, he began to be nagged by injuries, and despite continued competition in international events, including the Olympics in both 2004, and 2008, Alex struggled. He reached the medal podium just one more time, when he took gold at the 2006 European Championships in Sweden.

With his final jump behind him, Alex is giving thought to working as a coach. “I believe I have a great deal of knowledge to offer. Of course, knowledge is one thing – doing is another thing altogether. Still, I believe I can succeed – though I can’t succeed by myself. No one succeeds in these things by himself.”

Alex hopes he will be able to get the Israeli Association for Track and Field behind him, as well as sponsors, in order to establish a successful coaching enterprise, “with a trainer, a masseur, all the support that is needed for a first class operation. Of course, the current economic situation in Israel makes this difficult, as well as the fact that so much has to go toward the military effort, which doesn’t leave much for things like sports.”

As a future coach, Alex would like to see certain changes take place, among them, to get more younger coaches on board, and second, to help coaches working with elite and Olympic athletes be freed up from also having to coach the typical group classes for young athletes which a coach must do in order to make a livelihood. “To me, it’s important for coaches to have the time and resources to coach athletes for the best possible results. The Israeli Federation has to decide which is more important.” As Alex points out, Russia always focused on keeping only the best athletes in its top programs, and giving them the best resources, while in Israel, the focus has been on giving all youth the opportunity to compete and train, though not at the highest levels. Alex hopes to be able to spend at least half his time working with the best athletes in the country.

While Alex now celebrates the Jewish holidays – something with which he had no experience in Russia – it was all very new to him. At the same time, he and his wife have kept some of the customs that were familiar to them in Russia, such as the New Year’s observance that was the custom there and March 8, a day dedicated in honor of women (wives, daughters, etc.). One thing that Alex found in Israel which has not been to his liking has been lack of respect and discipline that seems to exist in many Israeli schools.

As far as the many words of praise that came on the occasion of Averbukh’s retirement, he said, “I never went into this career for accolades, simply to be the best athlete and the best person I could be, as my parents raised me to be. I was always proud to represent Israel, and if I succeeded I saw it as something that brought honor not to me alone but to everyone. As far as my place in Israeli athletics, it’s not my place to comment – others can decide this.”

When Alex completed his final jump, he looked for an Israeli flag, and ran along the track, saluting the fans. “I think that an elite athlete represents not just himself, but many people. At that moment, I wasn’t there just as Alex the athlete, but Alex the Jew, the Israeli, who had linked his fortunes with those of this country. When I made my best jump, in the European Championships in Sweden, our soldiers were fighting in the north (at the time of shelling into Israel in the summer of 2006) and as our soldiers were doing their part for the country, I wanted to feel as if I, too, was doing my part for Israel.”