Seven months ago, it appeared that Alex Shatilov would not compete at all during 2010. Taking part in the floor finals at the Paris World Cup in April, he fell awkwardly coming out of a two-and-a-half mid-twist. The Israeli delegation rushed to his side as he nursed his injured knee.
"I could tell straight away that it was a serious injury," says Jacky Wischnia, a former coach of the Israeli team and one of the judges on duty that day in Paris. "Our physicians and physiotherapists recognized right away that it was a serious injury and the MRI scan confirmed that he would have to undergo surgery."
Shatilov, who sustained a torn meniscus in the fall, was patched up and sent back to Israel to recover. It was already clear that he would miss the European Championships later that month, but the main concern was that he would not be able to participate in the World Championships in the Netherlands at the end of October.
"He couldn't walk without crutches for almost a month," says Shatilov's personal trainer, Sergei Vaysburg. "No one knew when he would be back in action - but I knew that he would return some time. I wasn't worried; he's got a strong character and he's got the will to compete."
After several months of intensive physiotherapy and a lot of pain, Shalit returned to training in August. Two months after that, he beat the early prognosis by competing in the World Championships. "Because he's relatively tall and heavy for a gymnast, we didn't think he'd be back so soon," says Wischnia, who saw his charge miss out on a medal by three one-hundredths of a point in the Netherlands.
"I needed another three or four weeks training to be in peak condition, but I was pleased that I showed the other competitors what I was capable of. It was a good performance, but not optimal," is how Israel's top gymnast described his performance at the World Championships.
Less than a month later, Shatilov won back-to-back gold medals in events in Stuttgart and Glasgow, to complete an impressive and faster-than-expected return to form.
Shatilov immigrated to Israel from Uzbekistan eight years ago, at the age of 15, and in 2004 he hooked up with Vaysburg. "He was still weak back then, but he grew 10 centimeters in a single year," says the coach who has turned his 1.83-meter-tall charge into one of the most unusual gymnasts in the world. Even though he dwarfs most of his rivals, Shatilov insists he is not a "white elephant; I'm a gymnast."
"The accepted wisdom is that gymnasts have to be small to maintain their speed and balance, but because of his natural talent, Alex has overcome the main disadvantage that tall gymnasts have - they have more weight to carry and have to make larger movements," explains Wischnia.
"Apart from the fact that he is very talented, his height makes him more aesthetic than some of his shorter rivals. His strength lies in his floor exercises, where, because of his height, his performances are far more exciting than the shorter competitors'. Usually it's a drawback being a tall gymnast, but if you can overcome the technical difficulties, it can be a major advantage."
After reaching the final at the Beijing Olympics, Shatilov's appetite for success grew and he started to consult with Russian acrobatics coach Valentin Potapenko, a specialist brought in by the Israeli Gymnastics Association to help Shatilov return to top form on tumbling. Potapenko has coached some of the world's leading gymnasts and now lives in France, where Shatilov visits him twice a year for extra training. Once a year, Potapenko comes to Israel to see Shatilov in action here.
Two years ago, when it was clear to everyone in Israel that the floor was Shatilov's strong suit, Wischnia advised him not to abandon the other disciplines. "I told him that the most important thing was to be competitive in all six disciplines," says Wischnia. "It's true that his greatest chance of success is in the floor, but the top gymnasts in the world, those who go down in history, are the classic gymnasts who compete in all the events."
Shatilov took the message on board and practiced everything. It paid off: At the last World Championships, he was 10th in the all-round event - the best-ever result for an Israeli gymnast.
Because of his successes and his affable character, Shatilov has won a lot of supporters in Israel. In addition to financial aid from the Israel Olympic Committee and the government, Shatilov still gets help from the Immigrant Absorption Ministry. His main source of income, however, comes from the owner of the Maccabi Haifa soccer team Jacob Shahar, who also helps many other athletes, including judoka Alice Schlesinger and swimmer Yakov Toumarkin.
"When you come across someone with a real chance of success who needs help and needs to have the financial pressures lifted from his shoulders so he can compete at the highest level, that takes priority in my book," says Shahar, who heard about Shatilov from a business partner and was immediately won over by the 23-year-old's charm.
"He's a lovely lad; hard-working and conscientious. Israel hasn't enjoyed an awful lot of sporting success on the international stage, and any Israeli who does well brings us all a lot of pride and pleasure."
After recovering from his injury - and returning to medal-winning form - Shatilov continues to mark out his place in international gymnastics and bring the sport to the attention of the Israeli public. According to Wischnia, Shatilov is a completely new breed of Israeli gymnast.
"We've always had decent competitors here, but we never even used to dream about winning a medal," he says. "We said we'd be happy to be among the top 30 in the world and that one day we might make it into a final. Now we talk openly about winning an Olympic medal.
"Alex has brought the sport to the attention of the Israeli public. Once people only knew about the existence of gymnastics in the months before and after the Olympics; now people may not know much about the sport, but they've certainly heard of Alex Shatilov. There are still too few young gymnasts, but, thanks to Alex, we can start to handle the few that there are more seriously. It's true that he got his work ethic and style in a former Soviet republic, but all his progress happened in Israel. We can now say to the kids, 'Look, he invested, he trained and he's winning medals in the biggest competitions in the world.' That's something we have to take advantage of."
Shatilov's latest success, in Glasgow, means that he finished the 2010 season in second place in the floor exercises. Next year, his goal will be to secure his place at the 2012 Olympics in London - and that means doing well at the World Championships in Tokyo. Shatilov, who will try to book his ticket both in the floor exercises and in the all-round event, knows that "a series of good performances and proper preparation should give me a great change to meet the Olympic criteria."
"Gymnasts reach their peak at 25 or so," adds Wischnia, "so by London 2012, Alex will be ready to take on the world. We've got two years to prepare, to get his name known, to gain in confidence and to perfect more difficult routines in the five other events. He is certainly one of Israel's greatest hopes for a medal in London and we're not afraid to say that out loud. If you look around at all the other sports that Israel is competing in and the chances of winning an Olympic medal, you'd have to say that Alex is one of the medals that people are expecting most."
So with all due respect to the medals that Israel has won in judo, sailing and kayaking, if Shatilov were to win a place on the podium in London, it really would be a historic moment for Israeli sports.
"There's no question that the top three sports at the Olympics are athletics, swimming and gymnastics," says Gili Lustig, chairman of the Elite Sport Unit of the Israel Olympic Committee. "Success in any of them would be especially sweet."