At just 20 years of age Niki Palli carries the future of Israeli athletics on his shoulders.
Double European Pole Vault champion Alex Averbukh may still be around, but after next year's Olympic Games in Beijing, high jumper Palli will be Israel's only remaining true world class athlete.
Next week (July 3-4) Palli will compete at the Israeli Athletic Championships at Hadar Yosef Stadium and will be looking to match his personal best jump of 2.30 meters ahead of this year's IAAF World Championships in Osaka, Japan, which begin on August 25.
"I want to jump as high as I jumped in last year's event [2.30 meters]. I hope I can achieve this, because I'm feeling very good at the moment and have recorded good results in recent competitions," Palli told The Jerusalem Post.
"I want to reach my peak at the World Championships. I have two more months to prepare and I'll do everything I can to make sure I achieve my goals."
Palli and his family left Moldova for Israel 11 years ago, but he only received full citizenship in 2005. His Christian mother Nala came to Israel with both her children as a tourist in 1996, but her tourist visa quickly expired and she remained in the country as an illegal immigrant.
Nala married a Jewish Israeli a couple of years after arriving in the country, but the family's struggles with the Interior Ministry bureaucracy continued and they failed to attain the elusive citizenship. The family, however, received an unexpected boost when Palli started to excel in the high jump.
"Until I began jumping I felt like I didn't belong anywhere," Palli once said. "When I cleared 2.14m that was a big help and when I passed 2.20m that was it. Within a month I became a temporary resident and after another month received full citizenship."
Palli's improvement in recent years has been nothing short of amazing.
In 2004 he competed in the Israeli senior championships for the first time, finishing in seventh position with a jump of 1.96m. Just a year later Palli was the Israeli champion, clearing 2.23m, a massive improvement of 27 centimeters from the previous year.
Palli also won the bronze medal at the European Junior Championships in 2005 and continued his progress the following year, making a successful move to the senior level.
Besides claiming his second straight Israeli championship, he finished his first ever senior European Championships in an impressive sixth position.
Palli, who improved his personal best to 2.30m, also competed in the World Junior Championships for the last time, winning the silver medal with a jump of 2.29 in Beijing.
"The move from the junior level to the senior one was good," Palli said. "I knew all my competitors and I knew what to expect from the events. At junior level I was one of the best jumpers and in the seniors I'm in the top 15. I'm very pleased with that."
Earlier this year, Palli finished the European Indoor Championships in Birmingham, England, in eighth position, reaching the final of a major competition once again.
Palli, who will compete in the senior World Championships for the first time in August, is aiming to extend his run of major finals and book his place at the Beijing Games by clearing 2.30m.
"My goal in Osaka is to attain the Olympic minimum and reach the final," he said. "It's going to be very difficult and I will have to be at my very best to get to the final, but I know I can do it."
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