Averbukh Back and Ready to Raise the Bar

Former European champion vaulter optimistic after returning from injury

Far from the media spotlight, pole vaulter Alex Averbukh competed Sunday at Hadar Yossef for the first time since last summer when an injury threatened to finish his career.

Running 14 steps rather than his usual 16, Averbukh cleared the bar at 5.61 meters at his third attempt. The 2002 European champion didn't manage to clear the bar at 5.71 meters, but it didn't matter. Alex Averbukh is back.

"Haaretz wrote an article about me saying that I had retired," recalls Averbukh. "True, I had quite a serious ankle injury; the worst injury of my career. It stopped me from jumping and from competing at the World Championship even though I had prepared for it. Before that I had a lot of problems with my knees, but in the end you get over everything. When I end my career it will be when I decide to do so, not when someone decides for me."

Last summer's injury, which came a week before the World Championship, left Israel's track and field team for the event with marathon runners, with the young Sivan Jean in the discus and shot put and another youngster, Niki Pali in the high jump. Once again it transpired that without Alex Averbukh, Israeli athletics has little to offer.

But if Averbukh had competed at Helsinki, he probably wouldn't have impressed. His best result that summer was 5.62 meters, far below his personal best of 5.93 set in 2003. After years at the top in which he took gold at the 2002 European Championship, bronze at the 1999 World Championship and silver in 2001, Averbukh was buckling under pressure, and at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens he failed to reach the finals.

Before Athens Averbukh faced enormous expectations. Would he take a medal? Would he clear the six-meter barrier?

"I was asked those questions a lot of times, too many times," says Averbukh. "That only added to the pressure on me. All the time the pressure was on for me to bring results, and I can't always do that. In 2004 I gave it everything I had, but it didn't work out. Perhaps the pressure affected me, but now I know how to put the pressure aside. It doesn't affect my training and it doesn't affect my results."

After the Athens Olympics, Averbukh decided he had gone as far as he could with his coach Valeri Kogan and asked to be reunited with Yekaterina Fogel, who had coached him in Irkutsk before he came to Israel.

Their first season together was a disappointment, but Averbukh has no regrets.

"My coach is a good coach who is known not only in Russia and Israel, but throughout the world. Training with her is very good and I enjoy it. She is not only a coach for me, she is half a mother, half a father and half a girlfriend. I will achieve good results with her."

That is something that those watching Averbukh would agree with, having watched him on Sunday. Although the Hadar Yossef meet was just a preliminary workout for Averbukh, 5.61 at this stage of the season is cause for optimism.

Averbukh is working up the World Indoor Championship in March and the European Championship in Gottenburg, Sweden in the summer.

It was at the last European Championship that he scored his greatest triumph, taking the gold medal at the event. Back then he was 27. Now he is 31, but Averbukh is not concerned about his age.

"There are a lot of pole vaulters still jumping at my age. I have an advantage: I have more experience and my preparations are better. I don't make the kind of mistakes I used to, and anyway I watched one world championship on television and that was enough for me. Now I want to be in Gottenburg. Four years ago when I won gold, I felt I was making history. Not just for myself but for the whole country and that made me very proud."