Gili Lustig, the head of the Elite Sports Unit, likes to talk about the special emphasis he puts on developing beach volleyball in Israel. "There's no shortage of beaches or sunshine, and you can play and train almost all year round," says Lustig.
But good weather and good beaches aren't enough to put together a winning volleyball pair, and the Elite Sports unit has had a hard time finding sportsmen willing to sweat for four years to gain an Olympic spot. At first they tried their luck with women's pairs but Vika Klimischenko and Keren Oigman and Inbar Muhrar and Tina Fox didn't hack it for long. They lacked perseverance, the experts said. But the Elite Sports Unit persevered and eventually managed to tie two winning horses to its wagon.
Timor Petraev, 26, came to Israel in 1995 from Moldova and played the indoor version of the game with Hapoel Ha'amakim, Hapoel Kfar Sava and Elitzur Rishon Letzion. He also took part in a few beach volleyball tournaments and won several. But all the time he would hear that winning beach volleyball tournaments in Israel wasn't such a big deal.
"People told me to see how it's done in the real world, so I took some money from the bank and told my wife that I was going overseas to see some competition," Petraev recalls. "I went to Belgium, and it was an eye-opening experience. Today I find beach volleyball a lot more interesting than the regular game. They are two different games altogether. Indoors you play six a side with each player having a different role. In beach volleyball, there are only two players, and they have to do everything. In beach volleyball, there are a lot of slams and that's what I like and that's what the fans like."
Petraev caught the beach bug and went looking for a partner. He played with David Ziri and won some tournaments, but around a year and a half ago, he ran into Alex Shapranovich - and the two have been together ever since. Shapranovich, who is only 20, came to Israel in 1995 from the Ukraine. He played tennis and volleyball and found his way into the gifted sports youth program and the national youth volleyball team.
For the past two years Shapranovich has been a member of the Israeli national squad and is now considered its leading player, but he too prefers the beach game.
"I enjoy beach volleyball, " says Shapranovich. "There's a lot more pressure and responsibility. My aim is to reach the Olympics, and I want to focus on beach volleyball." Until last week he played for Be'er Tuvia, but now he is focusing on his Olympic beach dream.
His partner believes Shapranovich can become the world's No. 1 beach volleyball player. "That's what I tell him all the time," says Petraev. "He has enormous potential. "
When it turned out that Shapranovich and Petraev were willing to make a serious effort to get to the Olympics, the Elite Sports Unit and the Israel Volleyball Federation decided to send them to train in California with Dian Sleznik. "We went there to learn the ABC of beach volleyball, says Petraev, and Shapranovich adds: "We used to come down to the beach and beg for a game, but the locals would say we don't play with tourists. Now we choose who we play with."
After training in California, the pair hit the competition trail. At present they are ranked 81 in the world, but they aim to reach the top 24 - the Olympic criterion - in time to make next summer's Athens Olympics.
Their dream, however, demands a lot of sacrifice. Shapranovich, who is still in the IDF, is giving up on a sure career in indoor volleyball. Petraev, who is married and a father to a young boy, has to spend considerable time away from his business and family. I just set up a business a month ago, and now I'm leaving my partner on his own. My wife doesn't like my obsession with the game. My son has just started talking, and I'm away training in another country. It's crazy."
The Elite Sports Unit and the Volleyball Federation have the two marked for a place at Beijing 2008, but Shapranovich and Petraev aren't prepared to talk about anything less than a place at Athens.
"Beijing is many years away, says Shapranovich, and Petraev adds: "Usually it takes around five years for a beach volleyball pair to make it to the top. We've only been together for a year and a half, but we can do it. We will travel to every competition with the aim of winning. That way we'll make it to Athens. In Israel there is a lot of interest in the sport. A lot of youngsters want to play, but they still don't have any heroes like Arik Zeevi in judo or Gal Friedman in windsurfing. We want to be their heroes."
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