Three months ago, the Israeli delegation to the World Athletics Championships in Moscow, which comprised only three athletes, returned home empty-handed. Two weeks ago, at the World Masters Athletics championships in Brazil for athletes over 35, Israel had only one representative, 65-year-old Gregori Fuks, who funded his own flight and stay in Porto Alegre. Fuks overcame the solitude, jet lag and unfamiliar climate to claim three medals for Israel: Gold in the eight kilometer field run, silver in the 5,000 meter run, and bronze in the 10,000 meter run.
Fuks, who was born in Odessa, started training at the age of 15; three years later, he was already Soviet 3,000 meters champion. He trained with the Soviet team, hoping to participate in the European Championships, but was disappointed: “Because I was unknown in Europe, and they weren’t sure I’d win, they preferred not send a Jewish athlete,” he says. “I’m not 100 percent positive that was the reason, but that’s what my coach and I felt at the time. Instead of sending me, they sent a runner who I beat in the qualifying meets.”
Two years later, Fuks was already considered the best 5,000 meter runner in his age group, only to face Achilles tendon injuries. “When you aspire to excellence, you cannot be too careful. I trained full-steam for several months, but was then overcome by pain, and couldn’t run anymore. I tried to treat the Achilles tendon, but at the time the means were limited. Running was a huge part of my life, but after several attempts I realized I couldn’t achieve results at an international level and decided to quit. Amateur running was meaningless, as far as I was concerned. Forty years ago, there wasn’t the culture and awareness to the benefits of running. Anyone who ran for fun was considered a bit strange.”
Fuks retired from running at the age of 22, studied electric engineering and was drafted into the Soviet Army. “I could have been drafted as an athlete, but I had already given up on running,” he says. “My wife and I had a baby, and I had to look forward.” Fuks was among the first to immigrate to Israel after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1990. “We decided to get away as fast as possible, because we feared the border would be closed again any minute,” he recalls. “I wanted to learn Hebrew and find work, and make things easier for my wife and two children, who joined me a year later.”
Fuks arrived with an engineering degree and, after completing an engineering course at the electricity company, he received a license for the local market. He studied Hebrew at an ulpan and in 1996 he joined Pelphone, where he still works as an infrastructure official.
Five years ago, at the age of 60, he started running again. At first he ran alone in the National Park in Ramat Gan, shedding 40 years of rust. “At first, I found it hard to breathe, and my muscles ached, but I felt I could run. The body probably remembers things the mind forgets. My running style and technique were intact.”
After a while Fuks became acquainted with local athletics. “I was shocked,” he admits. “I realized that the results here were poor in comparison to my results when I was 20. I knew I could excel in my time group.”
Fuks indeed won a race for over-60-year olds in Ashkelon in 2008, but was rushed to Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv after suffering kidney pains. There he had a meeting that changed his course - not because he was diagnosed with kidney stones, but because the professor who treated him, Prof. Alex Grinstein, was part of Zehava Shmueli’s running group in Ramat Hasharon. Fuks was invited to join the group. “I realized I was among the best,” Fuks recalls. “The others were surprised that I could keep up with the youngsters’ pace at my age. People asked me ‘what are doing, what is it good for?’ But I never felt I was 60. In my mind, I’m still 25. If I’m running, I just don’t stop. I enjoy running with younger runners and knowing I’m as good as them.”
Fuks knew that he had no competition in his age group in Israel, and, again, hoped to excel internationally. Four years ago, he flew, at his own expense, of course, to the world veteran championships in Finland, where he won two gold medals in 5,000 and 10,000 meters for the 60-64 age group. “I was surprised, despite doing everything I could in order to succeed and believing that I could.” Just like when he was 20, Fuks felt he was at the top of the world, but again, his Achilles tendon began to bother him again, and he missed the 2011 world championships, returning to the track only at the end of the season. A year later he won two silver medals in the European championships in Germany.
Last month, he flew to Porto Alegre. “It was very difficult mentally; I was alone there for almost two weeks.” Despite the hardships he won three medals in the 65-69 age group, finishing a respectable fifth in the 1,500 meters run. “I don’t believe it’s just a matter of genes. One has to really work hard. I run an average of 90 kilometers a week.”
Fuks refuses to rest on his laurels and is already planning his improvement in the next championships, in France in 2015. “In Brazil I was the strongest runner, but I finished second and third due to tactical mistakes. These were the first times I lost races at the finish; I’ll have to figure out how to put that right.”
Fuks would love to register for many of the upcoming international events, but must give up on some of them due to the expense. While his friends prepared a surprise welcome at Ben Gurion Airport when he returned from Brazil, in his soft spoken manner he manages to express his expectation of support on part of the Athletics Association. “For some time now, I’ve been trying to convince the association to organize a group of veteran athletes, so I don’t have to fly alone to competitions,” he says. “I would love to receive more recognition, to have veteran athletes’ results published, but nothing happens. Every move is difficult, despite there being many devoted veteran athletes in Israel.”
Fuks, who remarried, has three children and four grandchildren. “I must thank my family,” he says, “despite the financial problems they understand me and try to help.” Meanwhile, he hasn’t given up hope of receiving financial assistance from the association but, until that day, he continues to do what he loves. “If I don’t run, I really feel like something is missing. I train every day and cannot imagine not training.”
Fuks offers several pointers to those still considering running. “The most important thing is to begin. If one can’t run 10 kilometers, one can begin by walking the distance. One shouldn’t search for excuses not to run – today it’s too sunny, tomorrow it’s the rain, and the day after – something else. One should simply get up, take a breath of air, look around and enjoy the view. Running frees the mind and the thoughts, and when I get home after running I realize how much I was bothered by silly matters. After running, I’m a different person altogether.”