Feb. 3, 2009
By Larry Watts
For Noam Shaham, the colors blue and white take on two meanings. Not only do they represent the colors of Penn State University, but they are also the primary colors on the flag of his native Israel.
"It works out well," says the 23-year-old junior gymnast.
Shaham says he landed in State College, Pa. not only because of the school's academic status, but also because of its rich men's gymnastics tradition. "I knew they had a history of developing top gymnasts," he says. "And (assistant coach and former Soviet Union Olympian) Slava Boiko used to be the national coach in Israel. I used to train with him once in a while as a kid and I knew he was a very good coach. I couldn't have found a better coaching staff than the one that was here."
But before taking the road to Penn State, Shaham, one of the top gymnasts in Israel, first had to serve three years in the Israeli army, a requirement for all men in his country. Since he was an "excelling athlete," he was trained as a military logistics manager and placed out of danger in the main supply office at the head command in Tel-Aviv.
"You still go to boot camp like everyone else, but I couldn't practice during these periods," he says. "When I was done with my training, I was allowed to practice every day, go on trips for the national team and participate in training camps. There were a certain amount of dates I could miss from my duties per year.
"People usually understood my situation, but sometimes I had to talk myself out of assignments. I had one situation where I was assigned guard duty in a village for a week and it was right before the European Championships and I really had to fight to get out of it. Eventually I got my way."
For the most part, other than an occasional guard duty, Shaham was out of danger. However, the wear and tear of practices and carrying supplies eventually took their toll.
"It wasn't the best routine for someone trying to concentrate on gymnastics -- practice, carrying supplies and then going to practice again," he says. "But I didn't have a choice."
During the 2005 European Championships, Shaham performed a unique maneuver on the high bar for the first time in a meet. He would let go of the bar and catch it again with a mixed grip, but during his time in the air, he performed a double back with one and a half twists."
"I had only been working on it for two months and was surprised at how quickly I picked it up," he says. "The only trouble was I fell on that skill (at the European Championships), but I got back up and hit it on the second try. That was enough to get the skill recognized, but the Federation International of Gymnastics (FIG) still had to give it a level of requirement."
A FIG official was then sent to Israel the following year to watch Shaham perform the trick in the Maccabi Games. It was then "The Shaham" got recognized as an official trick by FIG.
But Shaham hasn't performed his trademark routine in a meet since arriving in the United States. The wear and tear of gymnastics plus his work in the army resulted in surgery on both shoulders in 2006, knocking him out of the World Championships. Because he did not compete, he did not earn a qualifying berth for the World Championships in 2007, which would have been a ticket to the 2008 Olympic squad.
"Since I have been a little kid, the Olympics has always been the biggest thing for me and I still see myself doing that," he says. "I'm not giving up that dream. There's still London (in 2012). I might look old, but I'm still young enough and I came here to become a better gymnast and fulfill my potential."
Shaham was discharged from the army in October 2006 and was on the Penn State campus two months later. He was held out of the first meet, but he'll never forget the experience of attending his first collegiate meet.
"College gymnastics was nothing like I had ever seen before," he says. "The crowds and all the excitement were unbelievable. There was so much energy around every routine and it really pumped me up. It was so intense to be around all of that.
"I was used to having three or four competitions and then going to a big meet in Europe. But I had never had a full season like this where you are building up for competition every weekend. It really got me into shape fast."
Shaham couldn't have picked a better time to arrive at Penn State for his freshman season. He became another key piece to the puzzle as the Nittany Lions captured the national championship for the 12th time in their storied history.
"It was a sweet way to start my collegiate career," he says. "I couldn't have asked for anything more, we just kept getting better and better as the season went along."
Because of his rehabilitation from his shoulder surgeries, Shaham only competed in three events that first season -- floor exercise, vault and high bar. However, he saved his best for the end of the year, when he scored 9.45 in floor ex, 8.85 on vault and 8.75 during the team competition at the NCAA Championships.
Last year, he added still rings and parallel bars to his competition schedule. At the Big Ten meet, he took fourth on high bar (14.70), tied for fourth on vault (15.65) and placed fifth on rings (14.75). His score of 15.00 during the team portion of the meet on high bar was tops in the Big Ten.
However, while working out on the high bar two days before the NCAA Championships, Shaham, who was ranked No. 3 in the event nationally, fell on his back. He competed in the meet but was virtually a non-factor.
"On the day of the team final, I was literally dragging from event to event," he says. "I was really in bad shape on my last event. I couldn't walk, stand or put my shoes on. I needed assistance just getting out of bed."
Picking up the pommel horse this year, Shaham is at his happiest because he is finally competing as an all-arounder for the Nittany Lions.
"There's a reason I have been away from it for the past couple of years, it's my weakest event," he says. "But I'm working on it and I really feel like I'm a whole gymnast again because in my mind you're not a whole gymnast until you are competing all-around."
He may even pull "The Shaham" out of his closet of tricks. He has yet to perform the maneuver during a meet at Penn State.
"The intensity of the season makes it hard to add new skills to my routines," he says. "I'm looking forward to getting it (The Shaham) done. Maybe at the Big Ten Championships."
An Academic All-Big Ten honoree in Penn State's engineering science program, Shaham hasn't thought much about his career path, other than the 2012 Olympics. If needed, he still must serve two weeks of reserve duty in the Israeli army every year until his 40s.
"I'm still getting called up now, but my father tells them I'm going to school in the United States," he says. "I have an obligation to my country when I am done with gymnastics. I'm not saying I want to do it, but I need to do it. I owe them this much."