Watching Hen Banuz fly through the air is breathtaking. The 16-year-old is tossed into the air by teammates on Israel’s acrobatic gymnastics team, and after three somersaults he lands on the floor with his legs perfectly straight.
“I think it’s the most impressive role,” he says in a joint interview with teammates Amir Daus, Lior Borodin and Tomer Offir, who train with coach Amir Mozes. “Each role is hard in a different way, but the ‘little guy’ does the hardest job,” Banuz explains. “I also think it’s the most fun: I’m the one who’s being looked at up there, who is doing the elements – especially when it’s in a foursome.”
The Israeli quartet returned from the Acrobatic Gymnastics World Championships, held two weeks ago in Baku, Azerbaijan, with one silver medal and two bronzes. These can now be added to the silver medal they won at the previous World Championships in Geneva last July.
Geneva “was a turning point,” says Mozes, 32, who has been coaching acrobatic gymnastics for 12 years. “It gave everyone the stamp of approval that we really are a good team. This group is a fantastic four with strong character. They’re very determined and they’re good friends: that’s really the secret of the success of this whole team. Each one puts so much of his soul into it and, ultimately, it shows and they’re having huge success.”
Mozes says that when he first assembled the foursome, he didn’t expect their bond to be anywhere near as strong as it turned out to be. “They all come from totally different backgrounds,” he says.
Banuz is a high schooler from Kiryat Haim, near Haifa. Borodin, 20, and Offir, 21, are serving in the Israel Defense Forces as active athletes, while Daus, 23, is currently focused on preparing for the psychometric exam and dreams of studying physical therapy.
“I thought about applying to serve in the army as an outstanding athlete, but in the end I enlisted as a combat soldier in the artillery corps,” Daus recounts. “When I finished the army, I spoke with [Mozes] and we discussed whether I would return. I took a post-army trip to South America, and then we decided that I would be part of the foursome.”
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Because of his age and since he was already looking forward to his future, he says he was a bit apprehensive at first. “It was very, very scary because I’m the oldest and didn’t know how I would fit in there,” he admits. “But then I saw these guys – and they’re all truly amazing and strong and smart – and we gradually connected.”
He says he actually felt the strongest bond with the youngster who is seven years his junior: Banuz was just 14 at the time.
“I asked myself, how can this be? It was really strange for me. We went through a lot of experiences together and we really connected. With all the hours that we spent together, we found something in common with one another.”
Banuz lives far away from the rest of the team and, because of the intensiveness of the training, often had to sleep over somewhere closer to where they train. “He connected with Daus and became a regular guest in his home. He basically lives there,” says Mozes.
Borodin and Offir hardly ever get to go home, either. “The army helps, but not enough,” says Borodin, who serves at an air base in central Israel. He says the long drives and his army work are tiring and make it tough to train in the evenings, and that right after returning from the World Championships he had to stay on the base for Shabbat.
Offir can relate to the taxing schedule. “We have to get to the army really early. Afterward, we can’t pass by home, we have to go straight to practice. It’s a lot of hours. You get home late and then you have to get up very early again.”
Travel to competitions abroad is also affected by the pair’s army service. “I almost didn’t get approval from the army to fly, because it was to Azerbaijan, which is a prohibited country’ for soldiers to travel to, Offir says. “The approval only came through at the very last minute, so we didn’t know if we’d be able to compete at all. I try to explain to the commanders that I’m not traveling alone, that there’s a set framework – but they’re not always considerate about it.”
Borodin notes the distinction that the army draws between Olympic sports and non-Olympic sports. “If it was an Olympic sport, the conditions would be easier,” he says.
When you add the gold medal in the all-around event in the European Championships and the bronze medal won in the World Championships by the women’s trio – Yarin Ovadia, 20, Meshi Hurvitz, 19, and Inbal Zeitounei, 21 – Israel looks like an acrobatic gymnastics superpower. “There are lot more competitors in the women’s category,” says Shiran Vakhnin, who coaches the Israeli women’s team.
She reveals they had a small crisis during the competition, but when they overcame it they won the bronze in the final exercise.
“Every athlete has a mental crisis once in a while, it’s unavoidable,” the coach says. “They had trouble coping with a specific exercise. But even after falling, they knew they had to pick themselves up.”
She says the three female acrobats have been working together since 2014, with the exception of a two-year period in the middle. She feels they are worthy of the podium at every competition, but that their real triumph was “to be able to overcome the difficulty after a crisis. It’s a lot harder to pick yourself up from a low point and achieve victory than to play the game through the whole competition. You have to know how to deal with crises, and I am really proud of them.”
The main event for sports that are not included in the Olympics takes place this July, at the World Games in Birmingham, Alabama. “It’s a multisport event – the Olympics for the non-Olympic sports,” Mozes says. “It’s our biggest goal. We don’t know what will happen after that, but of course my desire is for us all to continue.”
The women are also preparing for the event and their coach is confident they will be at their best. “In terms of levels of difficulty, they’re incredibly strong,” she says about her charges. “They’re among the strongest teams in the world. Sometimes they slip up – it’s a little hard for them mentally – but they’re able to rise above it. I believe that at the World Games they will do their best and get what they deserve, because they really are a strong team. All they need to do is to show up focused, to do what they need to do, and everything will be fine.”
Mozes also mentions the World Championships set to be held in Holon in 2024, at the site that hosted the European Championships three years ago. “In Israel, sport is not an easy field to be in – especially in something that’s not an Olympic sport,” he says. “It’s hard to make a living from it, it’s not a profession for life. Everyone on the team will have to think about whether he’s willing to keep going for another two years, because it’s a sacrifice for all of them.”
To Mozes, it is also important to send a message to those in positions of influence that “there are athletes who are putting their whole soul and life into this. If there was a little more investment in these branches of sport, people might think twice about whether to continue.”
A lot of children in Holon – “the acrobatics capital of Israel” – are not thinking twice about it. “In Holon, everyone knows what acrobatic gymnastics is,” Mozes says.
The Begin Holon club is run by Tzina Harris, who was largely responsible for bringing the sport to the city just south of Tel Aviv. Together with professional director Sarale Miller, and with professional consulting from Leonid Vinnitsky – one of the sport’s top judges in the world – the club is giving acrobatic gymnastics a big boost. It has taken smaller clubs under its wing as well and, “thanks to its work, we’re beginning to see this pay off in other clubs too,” Mozes says.
The coach says that back when he first started training, “The sport was very small and intimate, with a very limited number of clubs and coaches who were involved in it. Today, thanks to a lot of work by all of the clubs in Israel, there is huge development.”
Daus says the credit must also go to the Gymnastics Association, whose staff “help us and support us with things like equipment, treatments and training camps,” as well as helping to deal with the army.
While Mozes stresses the sport’s need for continuity and for younger generations to get involved, Daus believes the increasing exposure that acrobatic gymnastics is receiving in Israel will organically draw in more young participants.
“We were just shown on the sports channel, and I think that does a lot of good for the field,” he says, before adding: “It should have happened a long time ago.”
Offir says the training situation in Israel is not ideal. “In other places in the world, there are residences and places that are set up specifically for it. The same thing could be done in Israel.”
Each of the four male acrobats cites wanting to learn how to do flips as the number one reason they got into the sport. Now they are hoping that their achievements will inspire lots of Israeli kids to try their sport as well.
However, the highest levels of the sport also bring certain pressures and dangers. “It’s built-in, because from a young age this sport is very intensive – it’s not something that ordinary kids experience,” Banuz says. “At the start it’s hard and stressful, but ultimately you can see that it’s working.”
Offir doesn’t try to downplay the risk of injury. “In every competitive sport there are injuries, because you have to repeat the exercise as many times as possible and perform it over and over again in order to become professional,” he notes. “There’s no way to avoid it altogether, but the risks can be reduced when things are done the right way as much as possible. You can find the right balance in training.”
The way the team has been progressing, who knows – with a little more training, they might just learn to fly.