In July 2001, it seemed as if Israeli track and field had a new star. Yoav Shuster, a 19-year-old from Ashdod, shocked the local sports scene by winning the high jump gold in the Israeli Championships.
In winning the gold, Shuster improved his own personal best by 6 centimeters, clearing a height of 2.21 meters, and pushing the great Konstantin Matusevich into second place. To put Shuster's achievement into perspective: Just a year before, Matusevich had taken fifth place in the Olympic Games in Sydney, and only missed out on a medal because he had more failed jumps than his opponents.
Over the weekend, Shuster once again felt what it was like to win a tournament. This time, he cleared a more modest 2.05 meters, in a more modest tournament, watched only by other competitors and a few handball players who happened to be in the arena. But for Shuster, that did not matter one little bit. "I had a great time," he said. "This was my first tournament in 18 months and I won, so it's a lot of fun to be back."
A lot has happened to Shuster in the five years between those two jumps. He participated in the World Youth Championship, but failed to impress; he won another Israeli crown; he got injured; he left to study in the United States, where he chalked up results of 2.19 meters in 2003 and 2.18 meters in 2004. There was nothing to indicate that he was on the verge of a major breakthrough, however.
Called in for a test
"This is where things get interesting for you," says Shuster, who hoped one day to become a journalist. "I underwent a appendectomy in November 2004, and a month later, they called me in for a test. At least, I assumed it was a test. But when I got there, they told me they had found a growth in my appendix and that they didn't know if it was benign or not. The doctors said that wanted to operate, but I consulted my family and friends, and they recommended more tests and treatment. After countless test, which lasted seven months, they gave me the all clear and that I can return to action."
So Shuster returned. While he was undergoing treatment, he started to miss his training and athletics in general. "It was a period of constant headaches; not so much because of the treatment, but more because I couldn't understand where this thing came from. It was not an easy period, and apart from that, I really wanted to get back into training and to start competing again. Saturday was the first real competition since then - and it felt great."
The desire to compete, seriousness and investment are three qualities that Shuster says he has tried to maintain over the past few years. "I was very disappointed by my performance at the World Youth Championships. Doing well in the high jump is very much a matter of attitude; there are days when everything goes well, and there are days when you can't do anything right. Then I suffered a series of injuries that prevented me from fulfilling my dream of competing at the Athens Olympics. That had been my goal."
Shuster says he was on the point of crisis. "There were people who thought that my career was over, and, to tell the truth, I was one of them. During the year I didn't compete at all, there was talk of my retirement. In the end, I got back into training because I have always enjoyed showing others that they are wrong, and I am sure that they are pleased to see that they were wrong." When Shuster got back into competition, he found that the high jump world had changed completely over the previous five years. Matusevich had retired in 2001, following a back injury, but a new star had been born. The new Yoav Shuster was an 18-year-old by the name of Niki Palli. Last year, Palli managed to remove Shuster's name from the Israeli under-18 record list, with a jump of 2.23 meters. The two have since become fast friends.
"It's a very welcome development," says Shuster. "When I was an 18-year-old, there were no other competitors my age. I would wait until the other competitors had finished jumping, warm up a little and win. I didn't have to make any great effort, and I really hated that. It's much better when there is someone on your level who can help bring the best out of you. Apart from that, Niki is a great guy; we're good friends and the competition will be good for both of us."
Now that Shuster is healthy - and more mature - his thoughts have turned to the Beijing Olympics. The road to China is still a long one and the hurdles are high, especially for someone who has only just returned to action. Shuster is not on the Israel Olympic Committee's list of potential competitors for 2008, and only receives a reduced living stipend from the Israeli Athletics Association. In short, no one is really taking any notice of him.
"Shlomo Ben Gal, the chairman of the IAA, told me that they are keeping an eye on my progress, and that gives me strength," says Shuster. "I still have a long road ahead of me and a lot to prove. This year I'm not setting my sights too high, but next year I hope to be recording the sort of results in proper competitions, and that I'll make the Olympic qualification standard."
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