Men's Gymnastics / Shatilov Claims Israel's First Major Floor Medal

Alex Shatilov claimed the bronze medal in the men's floor exercise at the European Artistic Gymnastics Championship in Milan, Italy, yesterday. The bronze marks the first time an Israeli has won a medal in a major gymnastics competition.

This historic event in some ways was just a matter of time - between the Olympics, the World Championship and the European championships, Shatilov has been knocking on the door for three years.

Shatilov, 22, was a surprise when he qualified for the floor exercise final at the World Championship in Denmark in 2006. It is a rare feat for an Israeli to make the final on any lone apparatus, where only the top eight participants compete. Shatilov finished in sixth place.

A year later, he placed fifth at the World Championship in Stuttgart, Germany. At that pace, he should have had a good shot at making the finals of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

The preparations for the Olympics were far from perfect. Shatilov suffered from injuries and arrived without any high expectations. He did manage an impressive acrobatic routine, which earned him the borderline score of 15.600.

Shatilov was angry at the judges during the preliminaries.

"It's hard to be in the first group," he said at the time. "It seems the judges reserve the best results for the last group."

He had to wait until the evening before it became clear that it was enough to advance to the final of the floor exercise, the first such final for an Israeli.

Shatilov was very nervous during the final, with his parents Sergei and Ella watching and believing he had a chance.

"Alex saw two champions collapsing at the moment of truth; perhaps sensed that a medal was within his reach," recalled Sergei Shatilov, "but perhaps this sense also stunned him."

The exercise started off great for Shatilov, but a mistake on one of his landings cost him a low score of 14.125 points.

"I'm the only one to blame," he said after the exercise while already looking ahead, "but I'll learn from this. I want to be at another Olympics, and the next goal is the European championship. It's time I take a medal."

The gymnast's path to success started in the Shatilov home, which was no stranger to athletics.

His father Sergei rode horses, his mother Ella was a gymnast.

"Because there was no way to put a little boy on a horse, we decided to dedicate his childhood to gymnastics," Sergei Shatilov said yesterday. Alex Shatilov was 5 years old when he started gymnastics. His older brother, Slava, started out the same way but ended up combining soccer with studies at the Wingate Institute.

"We've been in Israel seven years," said Sergei Shatilov. "Alex was in a boarding school, in a kibbutz next to Tiberias. It wasn't easy financially, it was even harder on our morale. Still, we always had one clear goal - the success of the child. And the child is uncompromising and wants to succeed."

Shatilov signaled his determination at the end of 2008, just as some of his competitors were taking a little time off. He won a bronze at the World Cup competitions in Germany and Spain, and a month ago, in preparation for the European championship, he won the gold medal in a competition in the Ukraine.

He also improved on other apparatuses. He is in full control on the floor exercise, and has become one of the best in Europe at the pommel horse. Yet, to join the top flight of competitors he needed a medal. The competition was tough and close.

Germany's Fabian Hambuechen came in first place yesterday with a score of 15.450 points. His compatriot, Matthias Fahrig won the silver medal with a score of 15.400 points, while Shatilov shared third place with Eleftherios Kosmidis of Greece, both just one-tenth of a point from Hambuechen.

"It was such a close fight between the top four," groaned Shatilov, "everybody performed well, and the differences were tiny."

Sergei Weinberg, Shatilov's coach, who also looks after his charge's psychological well being, was visibly excited.

"It's good that we have a medal, he had an outstanding exercise," he said.

Shatilov got excited, but immediately after his trip to the podium he started thinking ahead again.

"I don't want to talk about the Olympics just yet, even though I know that people think I'm a candidate," he said. "The next thing I have is the World Championship. That is what interests me."

His chances of advancing to the finals in the coming World Championships as well as the London Olympics in 2012 look good. He has caught the eye of the judges and competitors with his acrobatics, and his height is no less important.

At 1.82m, his height is considered vulnerable to falls in gymnastics.

"All the time they are surprised anew that this tall gymnast can be so flexible," Sergei Shatilov said proudly. "But, the combination of height and muscle is an excellent starting point for an athlete, even still from a visual perspective."

Shatilov is scheduled to return home to Israel today, a new star before the cameras. The local Olympic committee will present him an award for winning a medal, and then he'll go back to getting his NIS 4,000 stipend, which is hardly enough for a post-army young adult, but Shatilov wants his medal.

Scheduled to join Shatilov on the flight is Valeria Maksyuta, who immigrated to Israel two years ago from the Ukraine. She advanced to the final of the women's all-around competition and finished yesterday in sixth place.