TOKYO – Artem Dolgopyat had probably never been this tired. If the fact that he had just hit the pinnacle of his life weren’t enough, he was forced to contend with three nightly news broadcasts and another eight websites just begging to hear what he had to say. After all, the man was responsible for the greatest sports achievement in Israel’s history.
“We’re killing you, right?” I said to him as he dashed from interview to interview. “It’s a hard day,” he replied, but when told these were rich man’s problems, he replied, “Of course,” and smiled.
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That’s Dolgopyat for you – a man of few words. He’s apparently the shiest and most modest athlete in the Israeli Olympic delegation, and perhaps that’s what turned him into an Olympic champion.
Considering that the leading Israeli contenders for a medal – Sagi Muki, Peter Paltchik and Katy Spychakov – didn’t hold up under the pressure, at least not in the individual competitions, it wouldn’t have been far-fetched to assume that Dolgopyat would also break. The fact that he had reached first place in the preliminaries only increased the pressure. “Ninety percent of those who come from first place [in the preliminaries] don’t succeed in the final,” his coach, Sergei Weisberg, said.
That Dolgopyat had to wait eight days between the preliminaries and the final didn’t help. “It really wasn’t easy,” he said. “We also were training very hard. For a week we did three exercises a day like I did today, and every day it was harder and harder.” Still the 24-year-old gymnast didn’t let it get to him. “I try not to think about all these things,” he said. “Many times I came up from first place and finished in second place, and I was very afraid of that, but I tried not to think about it. I only thought about going out to do my work.”
He makes it sound easy, but it’s far from it. One after another his rivals in the final buckled at the moment of truth, while he managed to perform a routine good enough to take the gold. “In a certain way I also crashed a little,” he said, admitting that during the routine, after a few imprecise moves, he felt the medal was slipping away. “When I did the routine, I felt like it wasn’t clean, I thought it wouldn’t be enough. On the third pass I said to myself, ‘That’s it, it’s gone.’ But I took myself in my hands and said, ‘If you finish how you’re supposed to, you’ll be in the top three.’”
His thoughts were not off base, on a day when the slightest slip could cost you a place on the podium, certainly at the top of the podium. But his rivals apparently buckled under the pressure more than he did. In the end, the Olympic winner isn’t always the one with the perfect moves, but the one who doesn’t crack under the pressure. “I said to myself the whole time ‘No matter what, you go out and do your thing and that’s it. What’s around isn’t interesting,’” he said.
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The fact that he managed to detach himself this way is a major part of his success: Dolgopyat isn’t afraid of exposure or of expectations. He’s shy, he’s modest. Whatever else is going on simply doesn’t interest him – the gymnastics speaks for itself. Part of this happens because Dolgopyat and those around him are working correctly. And when you work correctly, you are prepared for the moment of truth and execute your exercise correctly. It may not have been his best routine and required a dramatic tie-breaker, but when the others fell, Dolgopyat remained standing.
It is amazing to think that Dolgopyat, now an Israeli symbol, began his life in Israel as an immigrant from Ukraine, a 12-year-old boy who didn’t know Hebrew. With six years of gymnastics experience from his homeland, he landed directly with Weisberg, his current coach, and through gymnastics made friends and learned the language. He also faced career-threatening injuries – one to his back that forced him to take a break from the sport in 2016, and a fall on the head in 2017, after he had resumed training.
Aside from his character, which kept him working and believing, two things helped Dolgopyat return to himself: the inspiration he drew from former senior Israeli athlete Alex Shatilov, who supported him all the way including in Tokyo; and his team, led by Weisberg and physiotherapist Adam Badir, who helped him recover from those earlier injuries, as well as a recent ankle injury and a worrying fall he suffered at the European Championships.
This team is probably the secret to Dolgopyat’s success. Weisberg is a world-class coach, who also coached Shatilov and Badir and is considered a magician in his field. Both, along with officials of the Gymnastics Association, protected Dolgopyat from all the noise, enabling him to focus on his work. Somehow, in terms of the media, he remained under the radar, a bit of an outsider. Now every home in Israel will remember his name for decades to come.
The lengthy preparations, the long wait, the exercise itself, all these are now behind him. Dolgopyat did something no one really believed he could do. He’s exhausted, but he’s happy. The stormy emotions he felt on the podium have been replaced by relief, by catharsis. “It was a hard day, in which my dream came true, and it’s very exciting, at a level that’s indescribable,” he said. And he really didn’t have to describe it.
The insane mismatch between the greatness of Dolgopyat’s achievement and his shy nature is hard to process. You are standing next to an Olympic gold medalist in one of the most important sports there is, and you see he’s just a shy guy with a cute smile and sparkling eyes. It isn’t clear that he understands that this is the first day of the rest of his life; that he is going to be an Olympic champion forever.