Going for the Gold - in More Ways Than One

Athletes selling souvenirs, lessons over the Internet to fund their Olympics training.

Earlier this month, rifle shooter Sergei Richter successfully completed his Internet campaign to generate the NIS 50,000 he says he needs to complete preparations for the upcoming London Olympics. Richter had offered shooting lessons and signed T-shirts for donations via the mimoona.co.il website and amassed NIS 54,000.

Valeria Maksiuta, a gymnast trying to get on the team bound for London, was impressed. Now she has started a similar campaign to raise funds via the same website, offering a trophy with a personal dedication to donors of NIS 850, and her competition uniform to those who donate NIS 5,000. For NIS 50, she sends along a signed photograph.

"A friend asked if I was interested in the idea, and I figured, 'Why not?'" said Maksiuta. "I realized it could bring me some vital funding for my Olympic training. We followed what Sergei did and hope for similar results. It's always important to get help when you need it, and now is the time. I admit I've had some financial problems. If anyone wants to help me, I'll be most grateful."

Maksiuta says a keepsake from a gymnast is as valuable as one from any other athlete. "I want people to invest and say 'I received a souvenir from a champion.' It's like getting a souvenir from a soccer or basketball player, there's not much difference - we're all athletes."

In January she entered an Olympic qualifying competition and came away with a gold medal in the vault and a bronze in the parallel bars. This meant she had passed the London Games' criteria for qualifying. But Maksiuta now has to pass the Israeli Olympic Commmittee's more stringent criteria, which require gymnasts to finish in the top 12 overall or top six in an individual event at next month's 2012 European Championships.

Meanwhile, she is still recovering from a tear in her Achilles tendon. "I feel better now - I still suffer from pain here and there, but I try to ignore it and I'm training hard for the championships. There's no choice," she says.

Maksiuta, 25, emigrated from Ukraine six years ago. After a shaky start here, she blossomed in 2009, finishing third on the parallel bars at a World Cup competition in Croatia. Last year she won an array of gold, silver and bronze medals at Grand Prix and World Cup tournaments. Now she stands to achieve her ultimate goal - with a little help from her Internet friends.

But the road to London is not paved with gold; according to the mimoona website, Maksiuta has so far attracted four donors who've given her a total of NIS 300.