Windsurfing / Kurzits' catharsis
Despite nearly drowning in a freak accident at the European Championships this month, Lee Kurzits is more motivated than ever to take gold in London
In the kitchen of her home in the coastal moshav of Mikhmoret, well-built, muscular and tanned Lee Kurzits stands at 5'11" (1.80 meters ). While watching the blender mix her special concoction of iced coffee and ice cream, the 26-year-old Israeli windsurfing champion took stock of all she has endured since September 2003, when she became the country's only athlete to ever take gold in an individual event at the World Championships.
"I entered people's radar with a bang," she recalled of the days immediately following her victory. "Three years went by until I finally understood the significance of what happened. I enjoyed the attention, but I didn't take it too far. I stayed myself, I went surfing with friends and did the same things, but in terms of the press and the Israel Yachting Association, their attitude toward me changed."
"I was just a 19-year-old girl," she said. "Suddenly I had to take on much bigger tasks and I had no idea how to go about it. You have to understand, the first time I rode a bus was at the age of 16. I had to look out for myself from a political standpoint and I had to worry about how people perceived me - and I was really bad at this."
Goin' it alone
Just prior to the 2004 Summer Olympic Games in Athens, Kurzits registered a fourth-place finish at a warm-up competition in Turkey. Yet she was forced to enter the Games without the guidance of her mentor, gold medal-winning windsurfer Gal Fridman. Kurzits had been taken under Fridman's wing as a training partner in 2002, when the latter was at the pinnacle of his career. But as Athens approached, Fridman concentrated on his individual preparations, leaving Kurzits on her own.
"I relied on skill, but I didn't have that shoulder to lean on and I didn't have that foundation for surfing and training," she said. "I didn't know what to do. I went to Athens thinking 'I believe in myself and I'm going to do everything I can with what I have.'"
While Fridman basked in the triumph of his gold medal, his protege - who was happy for him and his individual achievement - managed a disappointing 13th place finish in the women's Mistral competition.
"I wanted quiet, and I didn't want to surf anymore," Kurzits said. "I didn't grasp back then where I was, compared to the way I grasp it now. I didn't want anybody to recognize me, I wanted to surf the waves and be like everybody else - like my friends who enlist in the army, get a job after, then take a huge trip and surf in Australia. I kept surfing unwillingly, in deference to the sponsors. I continued doing what I didn't want to do and I didn't enjoy it."
Kurzits grew even more disillusioned with the sport after a disappointing finish at the 2007 European Championships. "That tournament broke me completely," she said. "I lost the desire to surf. I had schlepped the surfboard around since 2004 and then I just couldn't stand to look at it. I wanted to have fun, go out with friends, do what everyone else was doing."
Hawaii, here I come
With one last opportunity to qualify for the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, Kurzits just could not summon the drive to excel at the qualifying competition at Palma de Mallorca.
"I didn't lose on purpose, but I also didn't have that hunger in me," she said. "I just didn't want to fly to China."
It was clear to all that Kurzits was in need of a vacation. She borrowed money from her brother to buy a ticket to Hawaii, after a friend living there invited her to stay at his home. After joining a local windsurfing league there, she caught the eye of two companies who agreed to sponsor her. "I was suddenly in a trance and this gave me a shot of adrenaline," she said.
After the season, she stayed with two twin windsurfers she'd met in Hawaii, and then began to take up extreme windsurfing. To support herself, she tended the gardens of wealthy locals.
On April 1, 2009, after a long day at work, Kurzits rushed to the beach for a photo shoot organized by her sponsors. "I was surfing and a helicopter from above began taking pictures," she recalled. "I caught an enormous wave that was about twice the size of my house. Another Israeli surfer who tried to run away from the wave didn't see me and simply collided into me - with the bow of his surfboard going straight into my back. He panicked, threw his equipment on me, and I got tangled up with two other surfers."
"I immediately felt something was wrong," she continued. "I had a hard time breathing and my ribs were broken. The surfer pulled me up to some nearby rocks. I lifted my head and tried to breath, but another wave hit, threw me toward the water, and I broke my foot."
Kurzits suffered from a rupture in the costo-vertebral joint, which connects the ribs and the spine. While surgery is normally the course of treatment, she explained, it wasn't required for her because her back muscles were so strong that they managed to hold the joint's two nerve fibers in place from both ends.
"At first I couldn't walk, and the doctors told me I would be paralyzed and would never surf again," she said. "I was lying in a hospital in Hawaii, as it was impossible to fly me to Israel."
Once she returned to Israel, on crutches, Kurzits embarked on a grueling rehabilitation regimen. Initially, she was unable to move when placed in the water. Slowly but surely, however, she began swimming. Doctors were astounded when, after two months, she had gradually built up the muscles in her back. The question now was whether she would be able to resume windsurfing.
"Every day I tried to build myself up again," she said. "The pain and suffering were insane. Thousands of doctors and medical experts told me that no matter how much physical therapy I do, my back won't be able to handle the rigors and I'll never surf again - but I didn't give up because I know my body and I know who I am. I thought it was possible, but there were many difficult moments along the way."
Still, Kurzits was able to overcome the obstacles. In May of this year, she returned to compete in a tournament in Holland, which helped to prepare her for the European Championships in Poland earlier this month. During the ninth heat in Poland, she collided with a competitor and suffered a blow to the head, knocking her unconscious and into the water. Her life was saved by a French sailing coach who pulled her from the water and administered mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. "He gave me a French kiss," Kurzits said, smiling.
Her harrowing experiences have only steeled her resolve, reinforcing her love for the sea and windsurfing. Now she has her eyes on the biggest prize: a medal in the next summer Olympics.
"That's always been my biggest dream," she said. "I'm not like everybody else. I'm different. An Israeli competitor once told me, 'You were born for this.'" Kurzits could not agree more.