Israeli surfer Anat Lelior’s unlikely journey to the Tokyo Olympics – the forward
(JTA) – This article originally appeared on Alma.
Anat Lelior’s first experience with surfing dates back to the age of 5.
It was an inauspicious start to the sport that would become his career and, later that month, take him to the Tokyo Olympics.
Her father, Yochai, was lying on the back of the board with her at their local beach in Tel Aviv and pushed them both into a breaking wave. But instead of triumphantly rolling on the sand, the board took a nosedive. They tumbled down and the board shot through the air like an 8-foot plastic and foam projectile. On his return trip, he punched Anat in the forehead, splitting him open.
As blood ran down her daughter’s face, Yochai recalls, “all the people on the beach were looking at me like I was a murderer.”
Anat, however, was unfazed. After spilling blood on the sand and having stitches in the hospital, she asked to return to the beach. When Yochai brought her back to the crime scene, rescuers prepared tea for her and she sat up, stitched up and bandaged up, watching the waves.
Despite his injury, it was the start of Anat’s love affair with sports. She continued to surf and eventually began to participate in regional competitions organized by the Israel Surfing Association, or ISA. Soon, not only was she winning, but also gaining the attention of the local surf industry. Artur Rashkovan, owner of Klinika, a Tel Aviv surf shop and a central figure in the Israeli city’s modern surf culture, remembers the first time he saw her surf.
“I was announcing a local children’s competition in Netanya, around 2007,” he said. “I saw this girl, like 12 years old, and she was lying [a technical, snapping maneuver] and throw water. I didn’t know his name and I panicked. I was like, ‘Who is this girl ?!’ ”
This ability to throw water – the amount of jets coming from a board when a surfer spins it – requires strong legs, technical skills, and confidence. And in Anat’s case, that was just an indication of his power and prowess in the water, far beyond that of his peers. But unlike the women who stand out in places like California or Australia, where competitions are full of promising talent of all genders, in Israel at the time there were only a handful of other girls. in competition. Anat quickly ran out of people to surf against.
According to Rashkovan, surfer Maya Dauber ran into the same problem in the 1980s. Known as Israel’s first female pro, Dauber ended up competing against boys due to the lack of female opponents. But by the time Anat started to compete and pursue a career as a surfer, not only were there fewer children surfing, but the national interest in the sport was almost dead. The barrier to entry had grown even higher.
“We slowly started to see the level of European surf slipping away from us,” said Rashkovan. “European surfers started to get bigger sponsors and the ASP circuit [the global organizing body] would go to Europe. There was a geographic connection to them too, and we were, you know, at the end of the [Mediterranean], excluded.”
So the idea of making surfing an Olympic sport – let alone an Israeli participating in it – seemed more than a little far-fetched.
But in 2002, Rashkovan became the director of the Israel Surf Association. He dreamed of the day when Israel would have a vibrant surf culture, like what he had seen on a trip to California. The road, however, would be long and steep. While the industry as a whole was flourishing, in Israel competitive surfing was not.
Rashkovan got to work: he offered insurance and surf shop discounts as benefits of membership. He organized a big relaunch evening for the association, brought in the big brands and registered new members. He worked to convince surfers that being part of the ISA had advantages, even for non-competitors. By the time he left the association in the mid-2000s, Rashkovan had reinvigorated competitive surfing, started rebuilding his membership roster and created the first events for girls.
In 2007, he and the ISA passed the reins to Yossi Zamir, a native of Israel who had just returned after living nearly two decades in Australia. Zamir not only had strong ties with the industry there, but he also saw a highly organized and government-sponsored approach to surfing with a competition that created a kind of power system for the sport’s upper echelon. .
At ISA, he set out to import what he had learned.
His first goal was to get more kids into surfing – helping the sport lose its punk and bad boy image – and putting structure, rules and standards into competitions. The next step was to organize higher level international qualifying competitions in the country. And with a leading Australian trainer, Zamir has developed a high performance training program and clinics for ISA surfers.
Like Rashkovan, he also remembers the first time he saw Anat surf.
“At the first clinic, Anat arrived with his sister,” Zamir said. “She was very young and we were already seeing her potential at that time.”
It was around 2012, when Israel only had four or five female competitors in the whole country.
“It was very difficult to reach a high level when you didn’t really have someone to compete against in Israel,” Zamir said. “Anat worked very hard; I respect her a lot for what she has done. And she has an amazing family that supports her.
In fact, it was Anat’s father, Yochai, who lobbied the ISA to let her compete in the boys’ competitions.
“At the beginning, we said no,” Zamir recalls.
Eventually, the association will give in. Anat joined the men’s competitions and then began to travel and compete outside the country against a larger pool of female athletes. At the same time, the popularity of surfing in Israel continued to grow and more and more girls began to compete.
While Anat sometimes struggled to find competitive resources in a system that was not yet ready for her, her family supported her in every way. Not only did her parents provide her with equipment and occasional plane tickets, but also internal training partners: her older brother, Ido, and younger sister, Noa, who also competed until she derailed due to injury. Surfing with each other has helped them improve their games.
Noa spearheaded Anat’s first visit to a much bigger surf scene. Now 18, when Noa was 12, she asked if, instead of a bat mitzvah party, the family could go to a surfing contest abroad. Yochai and the sisters packed their bags and headed for their first qualifying round (QS) and their first junior level competition in France – a huge step up from the local competitions.
“It was a real treat,” Yochai said. “Tents on the beach. Buffet for the morning and everything was so nice. We rented a van, but a van for the flowers, so we slept in the back with sleeping bags. We didn’t have a big party for Noa. But we did a road trip. We did this competition and then we went to Pantin [Spain, which also hosts a QS contest]. The seed has been planted. An event can make a difference in a person’s life along their journey.
The trip was the family’s first to a top-level international event, but far from the last. Anat continued to compete at home and abroad, and in 2019 she provisionally qualified as an Israeli Olympic participant in the World Surfing Games of the International Surfing Association in El Salvador. A few weeks ago, the family were there again to cheer on Anat as she secured her place in Tokyo.
Unlike many of his Olympic peers, Anat’s formative years in the sport were largely a journey.
“It’s so hard to be so alone on this kind of trip, to have to break through so many barriers,” Yochai said. “You question yourself so many times. You are not in a community of surfers. To be a surfer with no competitions for you, and to be able to grow from that. To go to the army, and to go to school; this feeling that you always have to be in two places at the same time.
Those who have watched Anat’s evolution in and out of the water say it wasn’t just her talent, work ethic, and unique support to her family that brought her here.
“Anat has a very strong internal energy,” said Rashkovan. “It’s something else, it’s a different kind of person. She is very strong in spirit. In other words, she has the kind of tenacity needed to work her way into a highly competitive, male-dominated sport. “
It is with this in mind, Yochai said, that Anat’s road to the Olympics means more than reaching the pinnacle of his sport. He recalled the time in 2019 when she provisionally qualified for Tokyo. It had been a long, difficult day as she faced some of the most elite surfers in the world.
“When we got to the hotel, I suddenly realized that his qualification was [validation]”Yochai said.” For a long time she couldn’t believe that her success was her handiwork and not by chance. And she worked so hard for it.
“In a way, making the Olympics says yes, your work, your success, is visible. Yes, you are a woman. You are a surfer. You are an Israeli. You are Jewish. You are many things. But the Olympics are confirmation.
Post-Israel surfer Anat Lelior’s unlikely path to the Tokyo Olympics first appeared on the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.