Lofty Ambitions

While Haifa was being ravaged by a barrage of missiles on the Sunday before last, Niki Palli shifted his Subaru Impreza into third gear and stepped on the gas, as he always does during driving lessons when the teacher is not paying attention.

Haim Shadmi
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Haim Shadmi

While Haifa was being ravaged by a barrage of missiles on the Sunday before last, Niki Palli shifted his Subaru Impreza into third gear and stepped on the gas, as he always does during driving lessons when the teacher is not paying attention. Sometimes the teacher loses his concentration because of a girl who is crossing the street, or because of a colleague who is honking at him in greeting. But this time the teacher's attention was distracted by the sound of an explosion, followed by a second one. By then Palli was already in fifth.

"Afterward we heard on the radio that there had been a missile attack on Haifa and suddenly we also heard a siren," Palli recalls, two days later. "And it turned out that it hadn't been supersonic booms. The truth is that I don't care much about all that, I'm not really worried. I continued driving as usual. I don't know what to say, but sometimes I think that I'm a little weird. After all, there are missiles in Haifa and I don't get excited about all that; it doesn't worry me at all."

And so Niki Palli's driving lesson continued while missiles were crashing all around. He doesn't even remember where he was during the attack, not because he was in shock or suffering an anxiety attack, but simply because the 19-year-old lives in his own zone, in his own world, occasionally coming down to earth and communicating with his surroundings. The funny part of Palli's story is that he comes down to earth just to fly away from it again.

If anything, going by his last name, Moldova-born Palli should perhaps have been a pole vaulter. But he decided that he didn't need a pole for jumping. This was not a deliberate decision to which he devoted serious thought. It's just how things turned out for him when he was still breaking shop windows and giving head-butts to all kinds of dubious characters in Haifa - long before soccer star Zidane, who is one of Palli's heroes. In addition to Dick Fosbury, of course.

At the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, Fosbury, an American, revolutionized the sport of high jumping with a new technique, which became known as the Fosbury Flop. Instead of leaping by facing the bar and swinging first one leg and then the other over the bar in a scissoring motion - the prevailing method at the time - Fosbury turned just as he leaped, flinging his body backward over the bar with his back arched, following with his legs and landing on his shoulders. Fosbury won the gold in Mexico and showed the world the advantage of centrifugal force in executing a high jump. From that time on, everyone stopped jumping like fish in the sea and adopted his method. Fosbury was a natural genius: What the Americans and Russians understood only after carrying out scientific experiments and first laughing at Fosbury for his circus antics, he understood in a moment of inspiration. That is why Palli admires him.

Winning combination

The combination of Palli's swift legs, which compensate for his height - which is not very impressive for a high jumper (1.85 meters) - and Fosbury's centrifugal method, sends Palli spinning skyward. To date, it has sent him to the highest point reached by anyone his age in a high jump this year. Up to two weeks ago, Palli shared the year's world record with Chinese high jumper Huang Haiqiang, who is 5 centimeters taller than he is: Both of them had jumped 2.28 meters and thus shared the world record for their age group. But then, at the Israeli Athletics Championship in Jerusalem, Palli left the Chinese youth behind and improved his personal best, which is also the Israeli youth record, by another 2 centimeters.

The fact that Palli set the world record for youth this year at 2.30 meters - 6 centimeters short of the national record for adults, and 7 centimeters short of the world record for youth - should serve as inspiration for any Jewish Agency official. Except that up until a year ago, the only members of the establishment who showed an interest in Palli were those belonging to the Immigration Police. Ten years ago, Palli's mother Nella, divorced and the mother of two at the time, came to Israel as a non-Jewish tourist from Moldova. This meant that the family did not have citizenship, although Nella eventually married a Jew here and gave birth to a daughter, who is now nine years old.

Once the Immigration Police even knocked on the family's door. Niki was not home at the time, but he believes that the reason the police retraced their steps was because of his stepfather and his sister. Five years ago, Palli severed the connection with his biological father, who remained in Moldova. Not that there was a strong connection between them beforehand: They only spoke once a year, and even that was at the initiative of the son.

"I don't miss him," he says today. "The father I have here is enough. I don't really care, and apparently he doesn't either, otherwise he would try to get in touch with me."

Nella is not Jewish, but is still as Christian as the day she was born. However, when your son becomes a meteorically successful high jumper and a celebrity athlete who is expected to win a medal for his country - that may help you get citizenship. The whole Jewish/non-Jewish business becomes very flexible if national pride is at stake, like a back that becomes flexible when arched during a high jump.

"Mother decided to stay here and get citizenship, but the officials in Israel dragged it out for years, and meanwhile her passport expired and we couldn't leave," Palli explains. "I lived here, but actually wasn't here, like a creature from space that doesn't really belong anywhere and has no status. Until I began to jump. That helped. When I jumped 2.14 meters, that really helped, and when I jumped 2.20, that solved everything. Within a month I became a temporary citizen; a month later I received citizenship."

For Palli, acquiring citizenship, just a year ago, now seems as far away as the days when he jumped only to a height of 2.20 meters. "When I jump low - and for me anything under my record, even by a centimeter, is low - only then do I see what is happening beneath me while I'm jumping. But at the greater heights, I'm in a total blackout."

The fact that he is a kind of alien who came from outer space and lives here, has slowly penetrated his awareness. As in his report of the events of that fateful morning in Haifa, that's how Palli behaves everywhere and all the time: He lives in his own bubble, aware and yet unaware of himself and his surroundings. In his field that's a recipe for success.

"It's all a question of the art of the first step - that's the only thing I'm aware of and think about when I jump," he says. "Usually high jumpers have signs in their heads about what they have to do. When to run, when to arch their body, when to jump. I have none. It's all from the gut, except for the first step, which is the most important one. Because the first step is like an ignition switch for the spaceship-engine with which I jump.

"Today I understand that if the first step is wrong, everything gets messed up, because if you miss it, all the running is wasted. According to the first step I have a clear sense of how the running will be, and if I have the right feeling I don't worry about the other things. Afterward, when I'm in the air, I don't remember anything, like drinking too much and the next day not remembering anything. Afterward I float and half a second later, after I crash on the mat, I begin to come back to myself, and that moment continues for an eternity."

How was that moment when you jumped 2.28 meters and afterward 2.30?

"When I first broke the record and jumped 2.28, which was a result that was not related to anything and came out of nowhere, I landed and everything around was quiet. Suddenly I started to shout and curse. I think that those were good curses, of joy, because it was really unexpected ... Now it's only two days after I did 2.30 and I don't feel anything, as though I were hollow. I don't have butterflies in my stomach, only alcohol, maybe because I simply don't understand it yet. Usually it takes me a few days to digest. Only in a day or two, when I sit down with myself, will I suddenly understand what I did, and I'll probably say "Wow."

"Second Uzbekistan"

The nice part of Palli's story is that his path to high jumping, and from it to citizenship, actually begins from the lowest possible place. It all started when he and his friends used to hang around the streets of Haifa's Hadar neighborhood. Some people still remember the good old days in the neighborhood, but today it is no more than a hothouse for juvenile delinquents, which everyone calls "the second Uzbekistan." If there was anything Palli and his friends knew how to do, it was how to run wild. The young hoodlums used to "redesign" the school windows time after time, appropriate other people's property and throw empty bottles of alcohol, which had been full a moment earlier, at the walls of buildings.

Palli was not destined to become an athlete. "Everything happened pretty much by chance, all of a sudden, and when I think about it, it's even quite scary. Fate, it's all fate," he says. "What would have become of me had I not tried my luck with sports? Definitely nothing good. I live in a neighborhood of people who are involved in crime, and I know them. When I began with sports and saw that I was successful, I left them. When I was a child I used to steal bikes and things like that. I used to enter shops and take whatever I wanted. It's not a big deal to steal, and if at that age it wasn't a big deal, what would have become of me when I grew up? Around me there were lots of drugs, but I didn't do drugs, certainly not hard drugs, although it would have been very easy for me to go there.

"The entire neighborhood was in effect drugs and a lot of criminals. Hadar is Arabs, Russians, Georgians and religious people. I lived in the middle. I knew some really bad people who would break and enter and use drugs. I didn't do too well at my studies, because I'm not the smart type with high grades in school. I was more the type with grades of 55-60. If I passed tests I would say "I did it!"

What is the problem?

"I understand many things, but my memory is not so good. If I learn something, I forget right away. At the end of the year, when there are lots of exams in lots of subjects, I couldn't cope with it and couldn't study properly. It's often hard for me to express myself the way I want to, and until 11th grade I didn't study at all. I had no chance of reaching a calm situation where my mother would make sure I studied. It's hard to survive when you don't have citizenship, and Mom and Dad work at jobs with very little money, and it was hard to find time to study. I didn't have any pressure on me from home. My parents were busy surviving; they didn't have time for anything else. Mom sews and mends clothing, and my stepfather, whom Mom met in Israel and married, was working at the time as a gas-station attendant, and now has completed a welding course."

How difficult was it at home?

"It's not much fun to grow up in a home like that. There were times when I didn't have shoes and I would wear only flip-flops. In the winter I would buy shoes for NIS 50, and within a month they already had holes and would fall apart. When I was sick I couldn't go to a hospital or a clinic because we didn't have insurance and the treatment cost a lot of money. My mother once had surgery and we had to pay for it out of our own pockets - NIS 6,000.

"My parents just saw that I was home, and for them that was all right. They couldn't give anything more. I used to hang out with whomever I wanted and do what I wanted, and at home I would only sleep. Mom didn't know anything about it. Only once when I stole a bike and couldn't explain why I had a new one, she caught me and she and Dad spanked me. Already then, at the age of 12 or 13, I used to steal. I was always breaking and destroying things. It was fun, and provided a rush. Sometimes the police would come and we would run away, and the adrenaline would go to my head, and I would run and the wind was on my face and I didn't think about anything; only the excitement was important. And that's exactly what I feel now with sports.

"All that was not out of hatred, but simply out of boredom. We didn't study, so what was there left to do? I didn't go to any after-school activities because there was no money. I still have two friends from then who were "rescued" from that world, like me. One is in the army and the second is a high jumper, my friend Kosta, and he brought me to the sport. I have no idea what happened to the others. I don't hang around any more in the places where we used to go. I hope that something good has happened to them, and not something bad, but it's hard for me to believe. And the truth is, I don't care."

Shared Moldovan roots

When the missiles first began to land in Haifa about two weeks ago and panic erupted, Albert Funjin and his family, like many local residents, decided to stand under the doorposts of the buildings. Then on second thought, Funjin went to spend the night in the bomb shelter of his home in the Neveh David neighborhood. There, in the shelter, he was joined by his wife Frieda, his older daughter Angela and her son Mike, and Alexandra, the younger daughter.

Funjin, Palli's personal coach, was not always a person who spent time in shelters near refineries that are destroying life perhaps more than any Katyusha rocket can. No way. Once he was enrolled at the best school for athletic and sports coaches in Moscow, where the Soviets groomed coaches so they would be qualified to work with the Olympic team and to improve its athletes so that they would teach a painful lesson to their rivals from the West. His wife Frieda, a teacher, comments that Albert was the only representative from Moldova in the school. He came from the city of Belz, where the Palli family comes from, but the two families did not know one another.

Funjin and Palli met one morning seven years ago in the yard of a municipal high school in Haifa. "I was then, as now, a gym teacher at the school," recalls Funjin. "That day we were testing children for the coming year, and we had invited sixth-graders who were entering junior high school to come. Niki came like the others with his friend Kosta and he was ordinary, with ordinary results, nothing special. He wanted to do the broad jump, to play. But sports are not enough, you need good grades, too, and almost all his grades were poor. Look, that was when this trend had already begun of students who hit teachers or just throw chairs and bags of garbage at them, and we were very cautious about that with every new student. Niki grew up in the street, he hung out with all kinds of guys from Hadar, where the atmosphere is almost 100 percent wild Russians. He wasn't a hoodlum, but he was a troublemaker. I also grew up in the street, but not with hooligans.

"The principal came to me and said: 'Are we going to accept an unruly kid like that?' And we didn't. Two years later he got me on the phone and said he wanted to do the tests again. I saw that he had improved a little in his studies, and his grades were more or less all right, and I accepted him in the class."

Funjin is now excited, following the new world record Palli set for his age group. "For years I've been waiting for this - for the moment when I would have a star pupil, not just an ordinary student who attends an after-school activity and then grows up to be a scientist at the university. I used to sit in the swing on my porch in Moldova and think to myself: When, when would the time come when I had such a talented student, a diamond-in-the-rough, with whom I could go far? And then we immigrated to Israel and I thought the dream was over."

Coaching a bird

The coach looks around, lowers his voice and continues: "Niki is not an ordinary person. He is gifted. He has a talent and a jump that he got from his mother, which can turn him into a super-athlete at the highest level, one who reaches the Olympic finals or the World Championship finals. From the start I felt that he was progressing very nicely; he has attributes that I've never seen before. When a person comes into the world, his dream is to fly like a bird, and there is nothing closer to being a being a bird than high jumping and broad jumping. Today the record heights to which a person can fly are a distance of 9 meters and a height of 2.45 meters [the world record of the cocaine-loving Cuban high jumper Javier Sotomajor]. For that you need springs in your legs, and that's something a coach can see. Niki has very unique springs; one didn't see such a thing every day even in the Soviet Union."

He is not so aware of that.

Funjin: "Niki doesn't analyze what goes through his head, and that's very fortunate. And he's a great fighter - he really has the personality of a champion. All his technique is automatic, like a bird. And he also has the character of an actor. He likes to show off and every time there's an audience it only turns him on. He likes to be the center of attention, and that's very important. Such athletes come to a competition as though they're going to a wedding - it's their holiday, their party."

All during the interview, Funjin's pretty daughter, Alexandra, 17, sits next to her mother and father in the bomb shelter in their building, staring into space, until suddenly, somehow inspired, she murmurs: "Niki is a sweet boy, I hope he flies high." But Niki lives in a zone of his own, as we mentioned, and the zone protects him from a glance from the beautiful eyes of the coach's daughter. At the moment, there is room in his life for only one kind of high.

When the coach goes out for a moment, Frieda tries to sum everything up in a few words: "Niki and Albert came to Israel in order to meet. They're from the same city in Moldova and that's their fate, real soul-mates. In Russia, with an athlete on Niki's level, Albert wouldn't have to work as a teacher, he would be only a coach. He's a workaholic, he loves his work - all day only Niki, Niki and Niki. One can reach the stars only through hard work. In Moldova there was anti-Semitism and they didn't allow Jews to study in the university. I went to Russia to study and there I met Albert. After completing his studies he followed love and returned with me to Moldova, and from there to Israel. Everything is fate, I told you. Love is fate."

"Like jet lag"

Even when the storm of war was raging and the missiles landed on Haifa, Palli was in a serene and spaced-out mood, and slept well after celebrating his new record. Before closing his eyes, he says he still managed to think: "That jump was the first successful thing in my life. I didn't have any successes before that. I have an endless desire to break my records. I don't think about world records or about Israeli record for adults. Breaking my own personal best - that's the only thing that interests me at the moment. But the truth is, I don't feel good about the fact that I succeed only at sports. I want to succeed more, in my studies and other things. I don't want to be a person who has only sports.

"Look, I'm returning here to the neighborhood after doing the 2.30 meters, and it's as though nothing happened, as though I didn't break a record and everything has remained the same. It's like returning from abroad, a kind of strange feeling of jet lag. I forgot the feeling of the street a long time ago. I don't want to return to it. My friends are still involved in the foolishness that I did back then, and then I never dreamed and had no idea that there was a place where I could succeed. I only wanted to live. I felt then that I was a failure and I do even now a little, because of school. I understand that I should have studied, and I didn't. I'm missing two subjects for matriculation and I feel that makes me an inferior per son. Every normal person has a matriculation certificate."

Although Palli has now had citizenship for a year, and although someone like him would be useful in any commando unit, nobody has spoken to him yet about enlisting in the army. Maybe it's better that way, because as an outstanding athlete Palli would likely end up doing very little and reporting to the base once a week to give the sergeant tickets to competitions. For now he is living on NIS 3,500 a month - NIS 1,000 that he receives as a grant from the Olympic Committee as a member of the so-called "gold team"; NIS 1,500 from Castro, the Israeli fashion chain that has adopted him; and NIS 1,000 from businessman Danny Katz, who read about Palli in the newspaper and decided to be his sponsor - and also to let him eat free of charge at his Haifa restaurant. To clear its conscience about the child-slaves it employs for a dollar a day, the Nike sportswear company is giving Palli free equipment.

Palli easily jumped 2.30 meters in Jerusalem and finished first, but when he raised the bar to 2.31 meters and tried again, it fell with him onto the mat. At the beginning of August he'll be in Sweden for the Youth European Championship, and a week later at the Youth World Championship in Beijing. Two years from now he will visit Beijing once again - this time for the Olympic Games, in which he has already guaranteed his place with the 2.30 meters. That height was, by chance, the minimal threshold of the Israeli Olympic Committee for ensuring a place in Beijing.

For Palli, the concept of a high jump is not only limited to sports. "I've never been told that I'm an adult, they only said that I was a little boy, and I really did do foolish things," he admits. "But in the past year and a half, I've grown up and I've started to think ahead and not about what foolish things to do. And foolish things means hanging around and doing nothing, just losing precious time. For years I was nothing, and suddenly I see that I can be something."

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