Aiming High

In Germany, Sergei Richter is an Israeli hero. In Israel, he's a Ukrainian nobody - despite clinching the first ticket to London 2012.

Sergei Richter was a hyperenergetic child sent by his parents to any activity that could rid him of his aggressions: tennis, swimming, basketball, kickboxing. They too were surprised when he finally zoomed in on the most static of sports.

"Shooting really helped me," he now admits. "I had a difficult childhood. I was all over the place and just couldn't sit still for a second. Shooting helped me calm down and put things in proportion. In retrospect, I probably matured earlier than most of my friends."

Sergei Richter - Sharon Bukov
Sharon Bukov

At the age of 13 Richter started shooting as part of a Gadna (IDF youth corps ) program for youngsters. Less than a year later, his talent and love for the sport led him to Hapoel Rehovot: "I realized I had that something special, that I'm not just here for the fun of it. At Hapoel Rehovot they believed in me and told me many times I was way above the average. I got the knack of things really fast, didn't dwell on technicalities and improved my shooting very quickly."

Richter knows exactly what got him hooked to the sport: "In shooting, most of the time you compete against yourself, and that's addictive. The moment you determine your goal and want to reach it, it really gives you that extra satisfaction. You get rid of your nerves through a certain inner silence - it's a form of therapy. Sometimes it drives me crazy, but it's a way of life."

Richter improved and became more professional, but most of the people he met in Israel were notably unimpressed by the naturally gifted shooter: "Shooting is easy, what's the big deal?" was one of the most common reactions. Richter explains: "Almost every person who served in the army had the best shooting results in basic training or was the IDF champion. They're all expert marksmen. No one will say, 'hey, wow, that's really something.' Every Israeli is basically the best shooter you can find. I try to explain how difficult it is, but only when you come and watch a competition can you begin to appreciate the sport. Some of those who looked down at the sport tried it and then realized how difficult it is."

Two years ago, Richter was contacted by a place which really appreciates good shooters: Kolber, from the second German league (out of eight ), followed the Israeli's progression and invited him for trials. "I knew I was coming to a small, new club, founded in 1995," Richter recalls. "I was expecting a driver to pick me up, take me to the firing range, from there to a hotel, a competition, training session and that's it, more or less."

Reality was rather more colorful: "It was like a homecoming in films - fans, club staff and all. I had already been at all sorts of international competitions and thought the German league would be a minor event, but it was utterly insane. They transformed a basketball arena into a firing range, filled the stands with trumpets, drums and what not. Everyone was drinking beers and celebrating. I suddenly felt the fans get behind me and expect me to lead the club to success. I was really moved. There were live events on TV, and of course fans who wanted my autograph."

As Kolber's leading shooter, Richter soon became a local star. "When I went out jogging everyone recognized me," he says. "There were posters of me all over the place, at restaurants people would point at me."

Last January, after three seasons when only a few points separated the club from advancing to the major German league, the Israeli shooter led Kolber to its Promised Land. "I was really happy to help them do it. They signed me to take them up, I was their no. 1 shooter, and I'm really satisfied and happy that I fulfilled their expectations."

Sponsors, please?

After the celebrations, Richter landed back in Israel, where his friends call him "grandad" because of his early sleeping hours and abstention from alcohol, and no one was really aware of his adventures in Germany. "When I come back here I have to change my way of thinking. I'm a nobody here. It sometimes makes me mad that shooters don't receive the credit we're due, but it's something I just have to get used to."

Two months ago, Richter flew to the World Cup in Sydney, hoping to secure a place in the Olympic Games in the 10-meter air rifle event. "I made the final, and until the shot before last I was leading the event," he recounts, "but then I missed the medal and the ticket to London. I couldn't fall asleep that night, I couldn't get it out of my head and couldn't understand how it happened. 'What now?' I asked myself. But soon enough I picked up the pieces."

Only two weeks later, at a World Cup event in Korea, Richter made good with 597 points out of 600, finishing second in the competition and becoming the first Israeli athlete to secure a place in the London Olympiad. "It was very moving, but without sounding like I'm boasting, I knew I would make it."

Richter, 22, currently ranked fifth in the world by the International Shooting Sport Federation will complete his military service, and after the Olympics he plans to study graphic design. Shooting, obviously, is not a way to make a living. "There's no way as an athlete that I'll be able to support a family, I have to think about the future. Still, I pray that one day, maybe, with an Olympic medal to my name, this might change."

In the coming year Richter will move his Olympic preparations up a gear, but isn't sure he'll return to Germany ("Kolber have only covered my expenses, and I need to get more" ). After being a shooter for nine years, Richter is already used to Israelis not respecting shooters. Nonetheless, some things still get on his nerves: "Some people say, 'Sergei Richter? He's Russian, he's not Israeli, and he shouldn't be representing the country,' but I've been here for 16 years now, I was in a youth movement and soon enough I'll complete my military service, so nobody has the right to say that I'm not Israeli."

Richter's Israeli accent is impeccable, without a trace of his Ukrainian mother tongue. "It still makes me angry - I'm as Israeli as anybody, even if my name is Sergei, and it bugs me that even when I do something good, some people won't appreciate it because I came from the Ukraine."

At the Herzliya firing range, Richter, now a member of Maccabi Ra'anana, is enjoying a NIS 2,500 stipend from the Elite Sports Unit and another NIS 1,000 from the Israel Shooting Federation. You won't hear him grumbling or mumbling, but as our interview ends and the most important year of his career begins, he has one request: "Please mention that I'm looking for a sponsor. Any help will be appreciated."