The European Championship has been a happy hunting ground for judoka Arik Ze'evi over the past five years. With three gold medals and a silver during that time, Israel's senior judoka again is a candidate for a medal at this year's event in Tampere, Finland, which begins Friday.
But this time around, Ze'evi could find a place on the podium a lot harder to come by.
Ze'evi has had a tough year. After taking the bronze at the Athens Olympics in 2004, Ze'evi took off some time before winning the silver at last year's European Championship in the Netherlands. He lost to Christophe Lamber of France in the finals.
Ze'evi was disappointed, but set his sights on the World Championship in Cairo later in the year. However, two weeks before the championship, he injured his shoulder in training, and had to miss the event, returning to action only recently.
After winning the Student Games in Tel Aviv and participating in a second-tier competition in Slovenia, the European Championship is his first major challenge since last year's tourney.
With the World Championship taking place next year and the Olympics two years away, the European Championship is the only major event of the season, and will not contribute to qualifying for the Beijing Games in 2008. "That takes some of the pressure off," Ze'evi says. "But on the other hand, it is the only major event of the season."
Ze'evi is reserved about his chances. "Physically, I'm not at my peak. My shoulder has healed, but I don't have the power I had before the operation. And psychologically, I don't feel as good as I did before the injury."
But then again, Ze'evi's state of health before competitions has become part of judo folklore. "When Arik says he's injured or ill, I know he's going to take gold," says his teammate Yoel Razvozov.
"Nonsense," shoots back Ze'evi. "You always come up with little injuries before a competition; it's part of the routine. But I'm not back to what I was before the injury. I have at least one weakness, which if my opponents find out about it will help them.
"I feel that I'm getting older," the 29-year-old adds. "Every little injury takes me longer to recover from, but my shoulder injury has made me stronger than I have ever been in my left arm, back and stomach.
Anyway, [Hapoel Tel Aviv soccer player] Yossi Abuksis is 36 and still kicking. Athletes are competing longer all over the world, and there is no reason it should be any different with me."
While Ze'evi will be fighting age and injury, Razvozov, who competes in the under-73 kg category, will be trying to overcome mental hurdles to shoot for gold, after winning silver medals at the previous two European championships.
Razvozov, who came away empty-handed from last year's World Championship and was injured shortly afterward, is optimistic.
"I've been training hard. I feel well mentally and physically, but I can't make any predictions, since there are 18 judokas out there who are at the same level as me. Everyone is worthy, and some of them have won medals in the past."
In Razvozov's case, the mental aspect perhaps is more important than the physical. There is no doubting his strength, speed or fighting spirit, but on the big stage, he has yet to make his mark.
"My sports psychologist told me don't think about the medals, think about the bout," Razvozov says. "That's my strategy now, and I believe it will work out.
"Anyway [Olympic medalist] Yael Arad called meand said that May would be my month. I win all my medlas in May."
The Israeli delegation also has medal expectations from Gal Yekutiel in the under-60 kg class. Yekutiel, 24, has been marked as a medal hope for the past few years, but has yet to fulfill his promise. However, ranking seventh in Cairo last year and winning medals at two major tournaments this season, Yekutiel is hoping his time has come.
"I'm ready and my expectations are high," Yekutiel says. "I have matured mentally and physically, and I'm stronger than I used to be. I have a lot more self-confidence, because I have beaten strong opponents."
Also competing in the men's delegation are Zvi Shifran, Avisar Sheinman and Alon Sasson.
Alice Schlesinger and Sivan Mizrahi will represent Israel in the women's competition.
Schlesinger is only 18, but has been competing at the top level since the age of 14, and is considered a future Olympic prospect. Last year's Israeli champion Mizrahi replaced the injured Tania Simantov on the Israeli squad.
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