A native of Ukraine who competes for Israel, Felix Aronovich is gaining confidence and experience as a sophomore gymnast at Penn State University. "I still see myself getting much better," he says.
A native of Ukraine who competes for Israel, Felix Aronovich is gaining confidence and experience as a sophomore gymnast at The Pennsylvania State University in University Park, Pa. "I still see myself getting much better," he says.
Born July 18, 1988, in Odessa, Aronovich has lived in Israel since age 2. "We moved mainly because life wasn't good there anymore," he says. "The Soviet Union was collapsing and there was some level of anti-Semitism. My parents didn't want to raise me in that situation."
Aronovich is among several current Israeli national team members who were born in the Soviet Union. He has represented Israel at several European championships, and the 2006 and 2010 World Championships. In Israel he trains under Ukrainian-born coach Sergei Vaisburg in Tel Aviv; at Penn State he trains under head coach Randy Jepson, and assistant coaches Slava Boiko (who competed for the Soviet Union) and 2008 U.S. Olympic team captain Kevin Tan.
While Aronovich is diligently focused on helping Penn State aim for the National Collegiate Athletic Association Championships (April 14-16 in Columbus), he is keeping an eye on future international success. IG recently spoke with Aronovich about the unique challenges he faces in and out of the gym.
Israel's Felix Aronovich on high bar for Penn State University
IG: How is gymnastics training in the U.S. (at Penn State) different from training in Israel?
FA: At Penn State I work a lot more on strength and conditioning than I did in Israel. I feel much more physically fit when I compete, in comparison with Israel. Also, we have around 12 or 13 meets in a season in the NCAA, whereas in Israel I competed at not more than five meets a year. I feel that the workouts here are much more intense then back home, since we have a meet approximately every week, then you have to work a lot more to make yourself better from one week to another. But the main difference is that, back home, I trained mainly for myself since we had maybe two team meets a year, whereas at Penn State I compete for a team. I have a responsibility to be good in what I do, not just for myself, but also for the team, and that is a really strong motivation boost that I didn't have at home. Another important difference is that at Penn State I have three different coaches. Each has something new to contribute when I am learning a skill or working on a routine. In Israel I had only one coach with only one opinion.
IG: How are you coordinating your training so you can meet the goals for the Penn State team, but also stay on track for what is expected of you for Israel?
FA: For the Israeli team I'm expected to compete in European championships and world championships. Europeans usually fall a week or so before NCAA nationals, so I cannot leave. Worlds are in an off-season for NCAA, so it is possible to do. But it has its downfalls since I'm usually out of routine shape in the off-season, and to get ready for worlds, I have to train routines in the off-season, too. In the long run that takes a big toll on your body because it makes you stay in shape for almost a full year. That is why I'm still not sure about competing for this year's worlds (in Tokyo in October).
IG: How will you manage fulfilling your obligations to Penn State while also being available for important meets for Israel? For example, will you miss the European championships in Berlin (April 6-10) because of the upcoming NCAA Championships (April 14-16 in Columbus)?
FA: Currently my obligations to Penn State are my top priority. Only if it doesn't contradict then I can compete for Israel, too. But, unfortunately, I will not be able to compete in Berlin due to NCAA nationals.
IG: Looking ahead, what is your plan for training for and competing at the world championships in Tokyo, which comes at the beginning of your fall semester at Penn State?
FA: After the previous worlds (2010, in Rotterdam) I was expected to compete in the upcoming worlds as well, but I haven't made up my mind about that. Training for worlds will take a lot of time that I need to work on new skills for the next NCAA season. Plus, it's really difficult to catch up with schoolwork if I miss two weeks for worlds. My classes are starting to get challenging, and missing a full two weeks of them is really bad. Plus, this year's worlds is not going to be a team worlds for Israel since we failed to qualify a full team (by placing among the top 24 teams at the 2010 Worlds). So I don't have that much of an obligation for the Israeli national team, since we can only compete individuals in Tokyo.
IG: Israeli gymnastics has improved a lot in the last few years, mostly because of gymnasts such as you, Alexander Shatilov, Eduard Gholub and others who were born in the former Soviet Union. What do you think you and your coaches can show to Israel-born gymnasts that will help them reach your high level, too?
FA: Israel is a very small country and especially in gymnastics, meaning the gymnastics community is really small and everyone basically trains with each other and there is a lot of cooperation. I, for example, can be called an Israeli-born gymnast since my entire gymnastics career developed in Israel, although I worked only with former Soviet coaches. So in that sense I had the Russian doctrine put into me. But now there is not much difference between us and Israeli-born gymnasts, because we all train under the same coaches and all those coaches are ex-Soviet coaches. That is why we had some really good Israeli-born gymnasts like Noam Shaham, my teammate here at Penn State; Shachar Tal, my clubmate from Israel who finished his eligibility at Ohio State last year; and another gymnast, Assaf Tzur, who goes to Temple University (in Philadelphia).
Israel's Felix Aronovich on still rings for Penn State University
IG: What are your realistic hopes for Israel in Tokyo?
FA: I can't really say about myself since I don't know if I'm going, and we are not sending a full team. But all of our eyes are set upon Shatilov and him winning another medal on floor and going even further this year in the all-around. (At the 2009 Worlds in London, Shatilov won Israel's first world medal, a bronze on floor exercise. Shatilov placed 11th all-around at the 2009 Worlds and 10th all-around at the 2010 Worlds.)
IG: Gymnastics has become very competitive among a large group of teams bunched together. What are the key areas on which you feel Israel would need to focus in order to break into the top 12 teams and qualify a team for the Olympics?
FA: We failed that mission (to qualify to the 2012 Olympics). But looking backward at the 2010 Worlds, we missed our goal on pommel horse. That was a really bad event for us, in which we counted some awful scores, which was the main reason we didn't qualify a team for this year's worlds. It was a very doable mission that stood in front of us, but a bad day on pommel horse was the main cause for us failing. In the future I think pommel horse will always be a weak spot for us. We really don't have much depth in that area, while on other events a lot of new guys are stepping up.
IG: What challenges have you been handling in adapting to the life of an American university student — in terms of academics, social life and the demands placed on you as a student-athlete?
FA: Obviously, in the beginning, language was the main challenge. Although my basic English was really good from school and reading books and such, holding a conversation in English or even taking notes in class is an entirely different case. In terms of academics, I came to the university three years after graduating high school, so I was a little bit rusty in the beginning of the school year. By that I mean I had to get used to the fact that I need to do homework and study for exams again. But I have been successful so far, maintaining a 3.86 GPA (Grade Point Average, out of 4.00) and always aiming at As. In terms of a social life, it was a little bit strange for me since I come from a different mentality and society. So there was the small difference, but I wouldn't say it was too bad. Plus, I had my friend and teammate from back home, Noam Shaham, here, so he helped me a lot in getting into the groove of things. I felt like I wasn't a stranger here since day one. But there are definitely still strong emotions for Israel and my friends back home. I get to see my parents in real life, not on Skype, once a year, which isn't easy. But I have my Israeli group of friends on campus and my girlfriend that all together make me not dwell too much on getting homesick. I can't afford that.
IG: How many years do you feel it will take for you to reach your potential in gymnastics?
FA: I still think I haven't reached my full potential, although I improved a lot the past year and a half since I got here, thanks to Randy, Slava and Kevin. I still see myself getting much better. I hope that in a year or so, towards my junior and senior years, I'll reach my full abilities.