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February 12, 2010

Israelis are medal hopefuls

Athletes are excited for the upcoming Winter Games.

Every athlete dreams of representing their country in the Olympics and this year Israel is sending three competitors to the 2010 Vancouver Games: a skier and ice-dancing pair skaters, a brother and sister team.

Israel is not known for being a powerhouse in Olympic winter sports, especially as there is only one regulation ice rink in the entire country, in the northern border town of Metulla, and only Mount Hermon to train on for skiing.

Israel started sending athletes to the Winter Olympics in 1994 and has yet to medal. Its best finish was in 2002, when ice-dancing pair Galit Chait and Sergei Sakhnovski finished sixth.

This year’s athletes are Roman and Alexandra (Sasha) Zaretsky, the ice-dancing team, and Mykhaylo Renzhyn, a downhill skier.

In 2000, at the age of 22, Renzhyn emigrated to Israel from Ukraine. He spent the first years in Israel learning Hebrew and did a short stint in the army. Immediately after arriving in Israel, he contacted the Israeli Ski Federation and was able to continue his career as a competitive skier.

Renzhyn’s father, a professional ski coach and trainer, was the national coach for the Polish Alpine Team before the break-up of the Soviet Union. Renzhyn, who now trains in the United States, will compete in Vancouver in the men’s slalom and giant slalom events. At the Torino Games four years ago, he finished the giant slalom in 32nd position.

The Zaretskys are heading to Vancouver to compete in their second Olympic Games. 

Roman Zaretsky, 26, learned to skate in Minsk, the siblings’ home town. His younger sister, Sasha, 22, picked skating up in Metulla, where the family moved in 1990. Their mother coached them until she knew they needed more than she could offer. 

“We come from a family of immigrants and they had a vision for us, a dream,” Roman Zaretsky explained to the Independent. “I’m thankful for them. After a while, the coaches started noticing us and also believed we had a future in the sport.”

In order to train for that future, the Zaretskys moved to the United States in 2001. “We needed more,” he said. “More ice, more coaching – more of everything.

“At times we lived with our coaches, teammates and on our own,” Zaretsky continued. “Figure skating is more than just skating, you get to go around the world and travel. I guess our parents were right – it’s a whole lifestyle, not just skating.”

Boris Chait, president and chairman of the Israel Ice Skating Federation, said of the pair: “Their training regiment is very structured and hard. A lot of thought is given into everything they do on and off the ice.”

Roman Zaretsky agreed: “We have spent 12 to 13 years traveling around the world for skating. It’s all about dedication, hard work, eating the right foods and going to sleep early.”

He explained the elements that go into being an Olympic athlete. “People don’t see the sweat and blood,” he said. “There is no time for a personal life, no time for friends and family. So, when we perform in front of a crowd, we give everything we have.”

The siblings returned to Israel in 2003, for Roman to start his army service. “I was not in a combat unit, but I was at the base daily and spent the afternoons training.” He completed his service in 2006 with the rank of a sergeant.

Placing 22nd at the 2006 Olympics, the Zaretskys are continually improving.  They were ninth at the 2008 World Championships and first in the 2009 World University Games.

The excitement of participating in the Vancouver Games is on every competitor’s mind. “We are counting the hours and days till the start of the Olympics, “ Zaresky said enthusiastically. “I’m more excited for this Olympics than the one in Torino. Then, we did not know what to expect. Now we do and it’s going to be even better.”

Not only are they excited by the Games, but also by the reception of the Vancouver Jewish community.

“The Jewish community in Canada is going to meet us and we can’t wait to get to know them,” Roman Zaretsky shared.

Other than meeting the community, competing in the Olympic Games is their only focus. “We have canceled everything we have had going on to mentally prepare,” he said. “All our energy has been diverted to the Olympics. Nothing exists for us right now except for the competition. Every athlete wants to medal, and we are going to do our best.”

They are not alone in their dream. “Everybody leaves a legacy,” Chait said, while discussing the future of Israel’s skating. “I would like to build up the sport in Israel and for Israel. Sport, in my opinion, has nothing to do with the climate but has a lot to do with people living in the country. We have over 1.5 million people with skating culture.”

Zaretsky said changes have been occurring over time, and Israel is starting to take notice of its skaters. “This time we had a press conference,” he said. “While that is the norm in some places, it was a first for us.”

The Zaretskys are excited to skate for and represent Israel. “Israel is a special country to perform for, we feel very proud. Every time you see Israel in the news it’s negative. It’s not just about personal achievement – it’s about team, country and honor. We hope to bring pride and positive exposure to our country and hope to represent Israel in a good light.”

The community is invited to meet the Israeli Olympic team on Sunday, Feb. 14, 4:30-6:30 p.m., at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver. They will be joined by Israeli Consul General Amir Gissin and the JCCGV Or Chadash dancers with music by Israeli-style jazz group La La Band. Details can be found at

Masada Siegel can be reached at [email protected].