Penn State gymnast represented Israel at Olympics

Penn State gymnast represented Israel at Olympics

Felix Aronovich performs a handstand as a Penn State gymnast during a recent collegiate competition. (PSU Athletics/Mark Selders)
Felix Aronovich performs a handstand as a Penn State gymnast during a recent collegiate competition. (PSU Athletics/Mark Selders)

UNIVERSITY PARK — Among those who grabbed headlines related to the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal surrounding Penn State’s football program was Graham Spanier, the Jewish university president who was forced to resign after it was revealed that he didn’t properly report the abuse to authorities.

Penn State student Felix Aronovich, on the other hand, represents a feel-good Jewish story surrounding the school’s athletic program.

Aronovich represented Israel as a member of its gymnastics team at the Olympic Games in London this summer. Born in Ukraine and now a resident of Kiryat Motzkin, the 23-year-old gymnast realized a lifelong dream when he officially qualified for the 2012 London games based on his performance at the European Gymnastics Championships in Montpellier, France.

“Most aspiring young gymnasts envision themselves on the Olympic stage but few are able to realize this dream,” said Randy Jepson, Aronovich’s coach at Penn State. “My staff, our team, and myself are thrilled that Felix will be able to use his Olympic experience as a springboard into his senior season when we host the NCAA Championships in Rec Hall here at Penn State in April.”

Aronovich is an engineering science major, with a minor in nanotechnology. “He is an academic all-American, and a very dedicated student,” Jepson said. “His example and success as a student and as an athlete are the epitome of what it means to be a Penn State student-athlete.”

In Israel, Aronovich trained with club team Maccabi Tel Aviv while living with his parents, Leonid and Sofia. Upon graduation in 2013, he intends to pursue a master’s degree in the field of renewable energy.

Although he didn’t win any medals in London, the experience alone was the thrill of a lifetime for Aronovich.

“Before going to London I was pleased by the accomplishment of getting to compete,” he said. “That was a prize by itself. Being there was amazing. It’s hard to put into words but it’s like being on top of the world for two weeks.”

What earned Aronovich the right to compete was an impressive series of consistent performances in numerous gymnastics competitions. He secured his place in London after finishing 11th overall in the individual all-around competition at the European Championships in Montpellier, meeting the Olympic Committee of Israel’s criteria.

Before Montpellier, Aronovich earned CGA First Team All-American Scholar Athlete (3.70-3.799 GPA) and Academic All-Big Ten honors and he was named National Gymnast of the Week after capturing two first-place finishes (parallel bars and all-around) and a third place (high bar) against Ohio State University. He earned his second career Big Ten Gymnast of the Week honor for placing first in the all-around and parallel bars and second in the high bar in a tri-meet with the University of Minnesota and the University of Iowa and he set career highs in five events (floor exercise, pommel horse, still rings, vault, and parallel bars) and the all-around.

Aronovich recorded Penn State’s highest scores of the season in the pommel horse (15.100), parallel bars (15.400), and the all-around (87.150), and was nationally ranked No. 10 (parallel bars), No. 14 (high bar) and No. 16 (still rings) at season’s end.

The gymnastics competition at the 2012 London Olympics took place from July 28 to Aug. 7 at North Greenwich Arena on the banks of the River Thames. A total of 98 of the world’s top men’s gymnasts competed for team and individual honors at the 30th Games of the Olympiad — Aronovich placed 32nd in the all-around competition and did not qualify for the semifinals.

As his parents taught him, Aronovich understood competing at the Olympics was more than just about his accomplishments. He knew the history and about the murder of 11 Israeli athletes and coaches by terrorists in Munich in 1972.  

“I went to the church where they had a ceremony for the Israeli athletes who died in 1972,” Aronovich recalled. “They had a lot of dignitaries there including family members of the victims, the prime minister of England, the mayor of London and the chairman of the Olympic Committee. The most emotional part was when the wives of the victims were talking.”

Asked about the security at the London Games, Aronovich said that he felt protected and safe.

“We had British police officers outside of our hotel in full gear with AK-47s 24-7,” he said. “Nobody could get in the village.”

In 2012, Aronovich was a key member of a Penn State squad that finished third at the National Collegiate Championships, the program’s highest finish since the Nittany Lions won their NCAA-record 12th national title in 2007. Aronovich had his best collegiate season in 2012, setting career highs in five of six events and the all-around.

He learned confidence from former Penn State assistant coach Kevin Tan. Tan was the last Penn State gymnast to compete in the Olympics, when he earned a bronze medal for the United States at the 2008 games in Beijing.

“One of the great things about Kevin is that he makes you feel you can do anything,” Aronovich said. “He had a calming, soothing personality and he makes you feel you can achieve everything. I loved training with him.”

What does it take to be successful in gymnastics?

“The first thing you need is a small body type,” the 5-foot-6, 145-pound Aronovich said. “Then you must be very strong. We don’t do any weight lifting or much running but we do things like pushups where you use your own body weight. You also need body awareness in the air which you need to develop at a young age.”

Moving forward, Aronovich would like to stay in the United States after graduation and work on using nanotechnology in solar cell devices or electronics. Whatever his path, he will bring along the humility he said his parents have instilled in him.

“When you are humble you appreciate things more,” Aronovich said. “My family is a working-class family but we didn’t struggle. They are a very loving family and always supported me in gymnastics.”