Artem Dolgopyat made history this year by winning the first silver medal in artistic gymnastics at Worlds for Israel. He became an overnight sensation in Israel and the local media published quite a few interviews with him during the past 1,5 months. His phone and email basically exploded after the Worlds:
“Suddenly everyone started writing to me, I answered 200 emails today. It’s hard to sleep, there’s adrenaline, and the phone’s ringing constantly. My Hebrew is not good enough and it wasn’t easy for me to reply to everyone because sometimes it’s hard for me to understand. It’s nice that people are starting to notice me, and I enjoy it when I’m walking down the street and some people recognize me, say nice things and ask to take a picture. When I got home, I received many calls from the media, and suddenly a guy called me and congratulated me in Russian on my achievement. Before he hung up, I asked him which media agency he was from and he told me he was not a journalist, but a person who loved sports. It made me feel great.”
Dolgopyat started doing gymnastics in Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine.
“My dad did gymnastics for a few years and wanted me to try it because it’s a difficult and beautiful sport. I was very thin and full of energy, and I remember coming into the hall and I saw a lot of little children jumping on the trampoline and doing saltos. The kids were 2-3 years older, I was the smallest in the class. At first, I practiced once a week, then twice, then three times. It was a game for me then. The coach promised candy if I did the elements. Then he replaced candy with juice. But my dad started setting specific goals. At 11 years old I was already training for 4-5 hours each day.”
At 12, Dolgopyat moved to Israel.
“I didn’t know anything about Jews. There was no antisemitism among the kids. I knew that my grandmother was Jewish but I considered myself Ukrainian since that was where I was born. When I turned 12, it became hard [to live in Ukraine], there was no money, my parents worked really hard to support the family. By then I already was a two-time national champion in my age category, my coach said that the national team wanted me to move to Kiev, to live in a boarding school. Then my parents said: we’re going [to Israel]. It seemed weird to me to move to a place where I’ve never been before and I didn’t know what Israel was. We arrived in June, it was hard to breath [because of the heat]. My parents started working from the very beginning and did everything so that I could continue doing gymnastics.
Dolgopyat’s Ukrainian coach knew someone in Israel who connected the gymnast with Sergey Vaisburg:
“I started training right away. The gym was different, people were different, the language was different but the apparatuses were the same”.
School, on the other hand, didn’t go so well for Dolgopyat because he didn’t know Hebrew well enough:
“It started hard. I sat at the desk with another new immigrant who came from Moldavia even later than I did. The two of us didn’t understand anything. A few weeks after that I was told there’s a school in Tel-Aviv, Shevah Mofet. it was a bit better.”
The second school had many Russian-speaking teachers who helped Dolgopyat if he didn’t understand something.
He says he mostly picked up Hebrew at the gym:
“I never learned Hebrew in [language courses for immigrants] in an organized way, I learned it from other people during practices. For me, gymnastics has always been the most important thing, this was what I did all the time and this was what helped me to settle in Israel”.
Dolgopyat eventually dropped out of high school because he realized that his difficulties in Hebrew would not let him to graduate on time. It isn’t an uncommon situation even for native-born Israelis to not graduate – the matriculation diploma exams are pretty hard and many people opt to do them later, often after the army, if they eventually decide to go to college:
“I realized that I won’t be able to manage [the exams] at the moment because I don’t read Hebrew well enough yet, so I decided not to waste time and leave high school”.
The Israeli national team trains in the same gym in Tel Aviv no matter where they live. Dolgopyat talks about his long commute to the gym:
“For years I’ve been spending at least 4 hours a day on the buses. I had to wake up at 6 am in order to arrive in time to practices, classes and physical therapy. It was very hard to stay stuck in traffic so many hours a day. On my last birthday, my dad gave me his old car as a gift, this made my life so much easier.”
He is currently in the army, serving in the rank of a junior sergeant. As an athlete, he receives a special permission to serve only half a day and can train the rest of the day and it’s very hard for him to combine training and the service:
“I come to the gym half-dead after a day at the army base. Athlete-soldiers have to work in the army for 6 hours a week but my commander allows me to leave after five hours”.
On the days when he’s not at the army base, he manages to put in two daily practices:
“If there’s no army on that day, I wake up, train, eat lunch, get rest, get physical therapy, and then the second practice starts at 15:30 and lasts till 19:00 or 20:00”.
For his medal at Worlds he received a special prize from the government – NIS 84,000 ($24,000) and his coach also got a prize – half this sum. He also got a raise and now receives NIS 8,500 a month ($2500) instead of 6,000 he was earning before Worlds. He also helps his mom financially (his parents are now divorced).
The floor final at Worlds was extremely hard for Dolgopyat because in addition to his long-standing back injury, he also injured his right foot. Previously, two other medal contenders from Israel – Alexander Shatilov and Andrey Medvedev – got injured and had to miss Worlds.
“I have been suffering from back pain for three years, there were days when I could not sit in pain, and I took several breaks over time, including a long one of three months at the beginning of this year. Two weeks before the Worlds my right feet started hurting. I even stopped tumbling for several days before the flight [to Montreal], it hurt so much that I couldn’t even step on it. My physical therapist, Adam Badir, taped the foor and gave me pain killers to take with me. I felt better during the qualifications, but in the final I couldn’t step on it again. I fell during the warm up, I couldn’t do anything. I hope for a surge of adrenaline and didn’t know how to do the routine without falling. For several days before the final I’ve been running the routine in my head over and over – how to land, where to land, I was closing my eyes and thinking about it.”
He knew that he didn’t do his best routine in the final but, given the circumstances, it was the best he could do:
“When I finished the routine, I was afraid that it would not be enough for the medal. I was a little stressed in the final, I was shaking in every little movement and it was one of my worst executions lately. On the other hand, I knew that I had chosen a high level of difficulty and that I still had a chance. After my routine I was really nervous about what the competitors would do. The last two gymnasts are considered good and when the first one fell, a second before the exercise ended, I already knew that the bronze medal was guaranteed to me. When the second one fell, also in the last second, I was guaranteed the silver medal.”
“I was happy, my team hugged me, there was great joy and everyone had tears in their eyes. I am very happy about the achievement and that all the hard work paid off. The goal in every competition is to win a medal first, but I always try to take it step by step and the first goal was really to reach the final. When you’re there, it all starts over, you can aim the medal and I was able to do it.”
He says that his back got injured in the Youth Olympics in 2014 because the mats were very hard there. This year he had to take three months off training to deal with the pain and even thought about retiring from gymnastics:
“I’ve been thinking about retiring during the months I took off training, what would happen if my back did not get better, but I managed to get through it, I came back slowly and I deal with it every day.”
He also fractured a finger at the Baku World Cup, suffering a horrifying fall on his triple back – Dolgopyat landed on his neck:
“The organizers decided that it was too light in the arena and turned only one projector on, so it was a circus show instead of gymnastics. I took off, tumbled, but got temporarily blinded by the light, straightened my body at the wrong time and landed on my neck. It was scary and painful, I thought it was really bad. But I only fractured my finger. The next day they turned all the lights on.”
Alex Shatilov is Dolgopyat’s idol and the main competitor on the national team. At Euros this year, they both made the floor final but Dolgopyat ended up in 4th, just out of medals, while Shatilov won the bronze. Even though now Dolgopyat holds the highest achievement in Israel MAG – World silver medal, he believes he still hasn’t surpassed Shatilov’s achievements:
“I haven’t surpassed him yet. He has lots of medals, he went to the Olympics. We’re competitors, but also friends”.
Dolgopyat’s girlfriend is from Belarus, her met her at a training camp there and she’s visiting him in Israel once every couple months. He’s also going to another training camp in Minsk in December.
His main goal is the Tokyo Olympics, but he still has many things to achieve before that:
“It’s three more years till the Olympics, three European Championships and two Worlds. I want to move forward constantly, step by step. But I don’t know what will happen”.
This article is a compilation of several interviews translated from Hebrew and Russian. Here are the links to the sources:
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