It’s 3 P.M., and the track and field stadium at the Israel National Sport Center in the north Tel Aviv neighborhood of Hadar Yosef is nearly deserted. Construction workers carrying out renovations are drilling just outside, but on the field is a single, and singular, athlete. It’s astonishing where life can take you – one minute you’re living in Kiev, you go to a training camp in the Crimean Peninsula and suddenly you meet an Israeli and find yourself in a totally different place. If Hanna Knyazyeva hadn’t met Anatoly Minenko, she would probably be training indoors these days, protected from the Ukrainian winter.
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Now, after marrying the former Israeli decathlon champion and relocating to Israel, the Kiev-born triple jumper is hopping and skipping in Tel Aviv’s pleasant winter sun. Her coach, Alex Merman, offers a few tips and words of encouragement and goes off to sit in the nearby cafeteria as Knyazyeva-Minenko, barefoot, takes a cool-down lap.
She is entirely alone in the stadium, and also in Israeli track and field. The American-Israeli sprinter Donald Sanford is a championship-worthy European medalist, but Knyazyeva-Minenko may be the best female track and field athlete Israel has ever had. In the 2012 London Olympic Games, when she still represented Ukraine, she placed fourth in the women’s triple jump. Her medal potential hasn’t been seen here since pole vaulter Alex Averbukh.
She began training at the age of eight, first concentrating on running. She was 13 before deepening her acquaintance with the sand pit. “At first I was better at the long jump,” she recalls, “but the triple was more interesting. Every slight improvement in technique can improve the result even more, and I love flying through the air. Before the jump I run through technical details in my head, think about what to do during the jump. When I fly in the air, I can’t describe it because I cannot be thinking about anything, it’s all automatic to me.”
Even though it was as an Ukrainian that she nearly reached the Olympic medal podium, her marriage to Minenko tipped the scales in Israel’s favor. “In Ukraine we couldn’t be together, because I was always in training camps. We’re happier in Israel, and Anatoly has work here. The most important thing for both of us is to be together, and [in Ukraine] it wouldn’t have been possible.”
Early in 2013, when she was 23, Knyazyeva-Minenko became an Israeli citizen and began a new chapter in her life. It was not an entirely smooth landing. “It was tough. I didn’t know Hebrew and everything was new to me. I felt like an immigrant. In Ukraine I was at a very high level and here people didn’t know me yet, I was anonymous and felt as if I had to prove myself.”
People who know her say she took to her Hebrew studies with nearly the same seriousness as her athletic training. She filled her home with vocabulary words scribbled on notes, and after just a few month of intensive ulpan study, was proficient enough to hold conversations in Hebrew.
“I don’t understand how it’s possible to live here without knowing the language, it’s important for understanding the Israeli mentality. It’s a little different from the Ukrainian mentality, everything is different,” she says in Hebrew, with an occasional assist from her native tongue.
“People are more optimistic and warmer, there they are cold and they put up more of a front, they try to impress. Today I already feel comfortable here and I love Israel, the culture. It’s interesting to read books about the history of the state, about people like David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir.”
Knyazyeva-Minenko is still acclimatizing to the local sports culture. In Ukraine she was part of an exacting assembly line, in Israel she represents the pinnacle of professionalism in track and field as well as sports in general.
“There, there were training camps every fall and every spring. I didn’t have to think about other things because there were people who did it for me. Food, hotel, stadium – everything was arranged. Here people help me where they can, but there are a lot of things I have to do for myself, like a coach and housing.”
Merman, who in Sydney in 2000 brought Konstantin Matusevich to the greatest accomplishment of any Israeli track and field athlete in the Olympics, fifth place in the high jump, hopes to rewrite history with Knyazyeva-Minenko. On a recent day in the middle of the week he left the school he works at early, in order to allow her to train while the stadium was still empty. They are tweaking her performance for the European Indoor Athletics Championships, which begin in Prague this weekend.
“I like Alex very much,” she says with a smile. “At first I had a problem with the fact that he also worked at a school, since in Ukraine a coach is with you all the time. Now I understand that it works a little differently here. I have to work with what is possible, and now we are fine, I am training enough.”
She recorded her personal best in the triple jump, 14.71 meters, when she was 22, in June 2012. Less than 80 centimeters stand between her and the world record, 15.50 meters, and experts believe she has not yet reached her full potential. “There’s a whole philosophy surrounding the triple jump, you have to reach the jump angle that is the best for that person,” Merman explains, adding, “Our goal is to lose as little speed as possible in the run, because each of the three jumps represents a catastrophic loss of speed.”
Rogel Nachum, who holds the Israeli triple jump record and is now the professional manager of the Israel Athletic Association, says that Knyazyeva-Minenko has a perfect skill set for her chosen event. “Her body type is ideal, she is tall (1.78 meters) and thin, with long legs. The capabilities are there. She is very young for the event, and sometimes it takes a few years to reach technical perfection, but Hanna had great results from a very young age. If she can just hold on to these capabilities, she’ll reach the very top of the world rankings again, but I believe she’ll be even better than she had been,” Nachum says.
According to Knyazyeva-Minenko, the Israeli climate suits her build. “In the Ukrainian winter, when it’s cold all the time, I had weight problems. That doesn’t happen in Israel, I’m even thinner because it’s really hot. Here the problem is actually with trying to put on weight.”
Most athletes shy away from promises and declarations ahead of competitions – Knyazyeva-Minenko is positively allergic to them. “I don’t like talking about what will be. Sometimes if you think about it too much and you want the medal too much, everything cramps up and you can’t do anything. It can hurt your technique, and that’s what happened to me at the Olympics, when I was leading and then lost. It was simply a matter of inexperience, I wanted the medal so much my head was spinning. Sometimes I don’t sleep at night before a competition, but it is what it is.”
She desperately misses her parents and sister, who live in the central Ukraine city of Cherkasy, she says, but both her husband and the desire to realize her athletic potential keep her in Israel. In between intensive training sessions, physiotherapy sessions, the sauna and the swimming pool, Knyazyeva-Minenko continues to work on her Hebrew, whether by reading books or listening to singer Arik Einstein. She also paints, goes to the movies frequently and, weather and time pressures permitting, swims in the Mediterranean. She has an undergraduate degree in economics from Ukraine and is considering graduate studies in Israel.
Ahead of the 2014 European Athletics Championships in Zurich expectations ran high, but she was forced to pull out of the competition due to post-surgery pain. “I really wanted to run” after the operation to repair an injured Achilles tendon, she says, “but my body wasn’t ready for so much stress.” Now, after acclimatizing to Israel and recovering from various injuries, she appears to be ready to shine.
With Rio 2016 set to open in less than a year and a half, Knyazyeva-Minenko can expect an enormous amount of hope to be placed on her strong but delicate shoulders. Each component in the mechanism that surrounds her – Merman, the Chissick family that took her under their wing, her sponsors, businessman Jacob Shachar and the Altshuler Shaham group; the Maccabi Tel Aviv sports federation and the Olympic Committee of Israel – must see to it that this 25-year-old diamond gets exactly the polish she needs before the moment of truth.
“I have to develop physically and mentally all the time, because 90 percent of success is psychological,” she says. “The Olympics cannot be compared with anything else. The feelings that arise, the excitement. I must be ready. I don’t know how to take all the questions, like what am I aiming for and will I make the finals. I simply focus on what I have to do. Obviously I want to get as far as possible, otherwise I shouldn’t be there. My dream is to leave my mark in the history of track and field, and of course to set records and earn medals.”