Israeli judo master Arik Zeevi will speak at FEDtalks Sept. 16. (photo from JFGV)
When we’re faced with a challenge, most of us are naturally cautious. But, says Israeli judo master Arik Zeevi, if you have a passion for something, go for it, explore it and, even if you fail, “you will always be proud that you took the challenge.”
Zeevi, who will be one of four keynote speakers at this year’s FEDtalks Sept. 16, advises in a 2014 TED Talk, “Go for the challenge because, I personally think that, by taking a challenge, that is the best way to grow, to improve your life.”
In that TED Talk, Zeevi shares the story of his experience at the 2001 World Judo Championship. Having trained intensely for two years and becoming a national hero in Israel – and with his journey to the championship being filmed by a team of videographers – Zeevi was “knocked out” (in judo terms, his opponent “threw [him] by ippon”) two minutes after setting foot in the ring.
Undaunted by losing the world championship match, Zeevi, a lightweight, registered to fight in the open match in which fighters of any weight could spar. Friends and colleagues warned him to back out, and the Israeli media fretted over what injuries he might sustain. But, Zeevi beat one opponent, a second, then a third; the fourth knocked him down. Though he failed to win the gold medal, he took the silver – and set a precedent. In the years that followed, having witnessed Zeevi’s success, more and more lightweights competed in the open category, and also won medals. The match morphed into its own championship event.
Zeevi won many judo medals in his time, and he is the 2000, 2003, 2004 and 2012 European champion. He is currently ranked eighth in the world, though he retired from fighting in 2012. Today, Zeevi is an inspirational speaker whose main income comes from talking to companies about what he calls “the similar worlds of sports and business.”
“It is all related,” he told the Jewish Independent, “excellence in sport and excellence in life.”
Zeevi also heads the nonprofit Israeli Foundation for Olympic Excellence (IFOE), which hires and funds Olympic coaches who identify, support and train Israeli children and youth they hope have Olympic potential.
“We scout kids who have talent, we try to nurture them and connect them to the sport that is right for them,” said Zeevi. “You could be Michael Phelps, but unless you’re living next to a swimming pool, you’ll never know.
“The biggest problem in Israeli sport,” he said, “is that all sports are coached by amateurs in private clubs. The coaches are getting income according to the numbers of kids, putting quantity over quality. Professional coaching is rare.”
Zeevi grew up in a tough neighbourhood in Bnei Brak and knows what it is like to have few opportunities.
“My coach was very young, and he was like an older brother to me,” said Zeevi. The coach played a role for Zeevi that he is now trying to play for others. “He pushed me to discover myself,” explained Zeevi. “Around 12, I became very serious. Before that, I was just trying to be part of something. At 12, I got my first invitation to train on the national team. My coach was a Soviet Georgian guy – they are fighters, warriors. By 13 or 14, I was already very big, and he pushed me to fight bigger guys. When 15, I won the championship against seniors over 21. He did a great thing for me, pushing me like that. When you find an athlete, you have to challenge them.”
It is the appreciation for what sports did for him that motivates Zeevi to make high-level training available to more young people. “I really believe in sports as education,” he said. “It is the best way to stimulate mental skills, and it teaches you how to deal with stress, failure, difficulty.”
Zeevi himself has three children. His daughter won the Israeli championship in gymnastics, and his middle son is into basketball and judo. Zeevi said his son has also taught him the lesson that sometimes pushing is not what brings success. “The more I push him forward, the more he goes backward,” he said, “so I have to take a gentler approach. The most important thing is just to be there for them. Then they will succeed.”
While in Canada, Zeevi will also be visiting a judo club in Toronto, which is run by an Israeli friend from his training days. There, he will be giving a master class for advanced fighters before he returns to Israel for Yom Kippur.
FEDtalks, which launches the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver’s annual campaign, is being held this year on Sept. 16, 7 p.m., at the Vancouver Playhouse. For tickets and more information, visit jewishvancouver.com.
Matthew Gindin is a freelance journalist, writer and lecturer. He is Pacific correspondent for the CJN, writes regularly for the Forward, Tricycle and the Wisdom Daily, and has been published in Sojourners, Religion Dispatches and elsewhere. He can be found on Medium and Twitter.