Rhythmic gymnast Katya Pizezky throws a ball in the air and before it lands she manages to leap in the air, land on the floor mat in a split and with her hands folded behind her back, to catch the ball between her shoulders.
Three weeks ago at the European Championship, she pulled off the same inhuman feat to secure a place at this summer's Athens Olympics. "Everybody expected Katya to get results this year," says Pizezky's coach Natasha Asmolov. "We worked terribly hard. Katya is a model athlete, she works twice as hard as anyone else and devotes herself to the sport. She's only 18, and is about to go into the army, but she devoted her whole year to one goal - Athens. It isn't easy at 18 to give up on friends, discos, going out, but Katya's only friend this year was me."
Asmolov is far from the stereotype of sports coach from the Soviet Union: She is smiley, chirpy and talks with her athletes about manicures and makeup. Pizezky, on the other hand, is everything one would imagine a rhythmic gymnast to be: She is diminutive, demure and beautiful. A delicate blond, who, while her coach goes on endlessly about the three years that have gone by since she immigrated, sits quietly with a dreamy look in her eyes without saying a word, even when her coach showers her with superlatives.
Pizezky made the Olympics at the final opportunity and the road to Athens was paved with moments of despair for the young athlete. At the world championship in Budapest last year, she made the Olympic minimum, but failed to meet the Israeli Olympic requirement of a top-20 finish.
"We thought it was all over," recalls Asmolov. "But the Israel Olympic Committee decided to give us another chance. We had to get a result that no Israel had achieved at the European championship, and nobody believed we would manage it. (Pizezky finished 10th in the qualification rounds and 11th in the finals.)
"At the World Championship we disappointed. But we didn't succeed because we didn't have a judge on the panel, and the Chinese and Japanese judges didn't give her a score. It's all politics," the coach asserts.
Asmolov says that rhythmic gymnastics is a combination of music, choreography, sport, drama and circus all concentrated into a six-minute routine. "You have to devote eight hours a day for years to ballet, fitness, stretching and it doesn't hurt to be a bit of an actor either. Rhythmic gymnasts also need to be very strong psychologically. Katya is very emotional. She is a very good actress and her routine is more than just sport, it's a story. She makes up most of her routines; I just decide what goes in and what doesn't."
Katya sits and listens and Asmolov continues her monologue. "What happened to Katya this year is just a miracle. She's matured, become very stable and made it into the top ten in the world, giving us a lot of hope. At the Europeacn Championship in Spain in 2002, Katya was a big surprise. She finished 13th and raised a lot of eyebrows. I love working with her. She's a great partner, she has loads of imagination and is always surprising the judges."
Asmolov finally left and Pizezky was left on her own, leaving her with little choice but to say something. "The most important thing is to always maintain eye contact with the audience and the judges," Pizezky explains. "You always know by the audience's reaction if the routine was good. If I know that I pulled off a good routine and the audience reacts well, I give a big smile and wave. If the routine doesn't come off well, I never cry. Well, sometimes. But never on the mat."
Pizezky then recalls the greatest moment of her young career. "When I heard my result at the European qualifiers and realized that I had achieved the criterion for Athens, I was in shock for a few days. I couldn't believe it. I worked for that moment all my life. From the age of six, I wanted to make the Olympics. I'm still in shock now."