Is Gili Lustig being a smidge optimistic when he says Israel’s delegation to the Winter Olympics is “among the top ten countries in the world?” Time will tell whether the executive director is right. But in order for you to decide, let’s look at the country’s nine Olympians who will be competing in PyeongChang.
Alexei Bychenko performing to Hava Nagila in Short Program Figure Skating at the NHK Trophy 2017 in Osaka, Japan
Alexei Bychenko (men’s free skate) made history in January 2017 when he became the first Israeli to take home a medal – silver – at the the European Figure Skating Championships. Born in Kiev, he represented Ukraine until 2009 and Israel since he immigrated there in 2011, including the 2014 Olympics in Socchi.
Bychenko is coached by Galit Chait who is as close to skating royalty as possible in Israel. She’s been to the Olympics three times, flagbearer twice, and her father, Boris Chait, has been president of the Israeli Ice Skating Federation since 2002.
Chait is upbeat about Israel’s strides on ice. “I was very proud of how all my skaters performed this year, especially Alexei Bychenko, who fought through the whole season and delivered a strong performance at the world championships, which helped us secure two spots at the Olympics. The men’s competitions surpassed anything I have ever seen before as well.”
Feature about Daniel Samohin
Daniel Samohin (men’s free skate) was born in Tel Aviv to Irina, a former rhythmic gymnast, and Igor, a coach and former pairs skater who arrived from Russia in 1996. But Samohin can take credit for going where no Israeli has gone before when he became the first skater from that country to win a championship title at any level.
Watching his competitors at the World Junior Championships in Debrecen, Hungary, Samohin was floored when things pointed to him as winner. “The last skater was in the middle of his program and people came up to me and said, ‘You won Junior Worlds!’ and I said, ‘What?’ It was really crazy because I didn’t know how to process the situation. All of a sudden I was in first place and thinking ‘Wow! What the heck?’”
Pittsford, New York’s Paige Conners is heading to PyeongChang to represent Israel.
Paige Conners and Evgeni Krasnopolski (pairs) come from very different backgrounds. Born in Kiev, Krasnopolski, 29, has represented Israel at three World Championships, two European Championships and the Sochi 2014 Olympics.
Conners, 17, calls Pittsford, a suburb of Rochester, New York, home. After she failed to qualify for Team USA due to illness, her mother had an idea. Since she had a dual U.S.-Israeli citizenship, so does Paige.
So in theory she could compete but the only potential opening was in pairs, something she’d never done. “It was so weird at first, skating and having to hold somebody’s hand. … I’m used to being by myself … nobody touching me.” Despite only having six months to train, Conners and Krasnopolski were able to qualify for one of the coveted 20 pairs spots in PyeongChang.
Vlad Bykanov wins the 1500m Men’s Semi Final in 2014 in Shanghai
Vlad Bykanov (speed skating) was also born in Ukraine and grew up near Metula, Israel, which boasts a skating centre. “After about an hour on the ice I was hooked. It felt so natural, I always tell people that it must be in the genes – well, let’s face it, we Russians are always going to prefer cold over heat, no?” Through a combination of heredity and hard work, Bykanov went on to win gold at the European Short Track Speed Skating Championship in 2016 and the men’s 3,000 this year.“I feel great and I am in my best shape ever going into the Olympics,” Bykanov said.
Bykanov now trains with the Dutch team in the Netherlands.“I miss Israel very much,” he says. “It’s a great country and my hope is to return home, so I can start promoting speed skating. I want to get thousands of young kids as enthusiastic about it as I am. And if I win a medal in Asia, it will be easier.”
Itamar Biran training for grand slalom
Also skating for Israel: Adel Tankova and Roni Zilberberg (ice dancing). Tankova, 17, was born in Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine and Zilberberg, 21, in Kiryat Shmona, Israel. Aimee Buchanan will skate in the team event only because she was unable to compete in the single women’s qualifier in Germany which was held on Yom Kippur. Israel’s lone athlete on the slopes is Itamar Biran who will compete in alpine skiing.
While all these competitors will be flying under the Israeli flag, the bulk of their training is happening elsewhere – and by some athletes who have a tenuous connection to the country. “It is personally very important to me that our delegation will include as many local Israelis as possible,” noted Gili Lustig of Israel’s Olympic Committee. “But for that to happen we need to give them the conditions they need. We can’t demand something like this when we can’t provide the conditions they require. That is why it is clear that at this stage our top winter athletes need to train in high quality centres abroad.
“There are plans to build an Olympic rink in Holon and once that happens we will be able to make Israel the centre of activity,” Lustig told the Jerusalem Post. “We are aware of the fact that some of our representatives are not exactly involved in Israeli life, but once we have the facilities, one of our goals is to change that.”