Womens' Volleyball /Back to Europe
Anna Farhi played for Bulgaria as a youth, but returns to the continent leading the Israeli team.
The Loukanova family in Vratsa, Bulgaria, didn't know how to deal with Anna, their youngest child. Mother Anka, a retired volleyball player, was a sports teacher at the local school, and she was stunned to learn her daughter was barely showing up to class.
Anna was interested in design and fashion, but between her growth spurt at age 11 and the family's move to Sofia four years later, no one was interested in her personal opinion.
"There was a big volleyball club there, and mother forced me to go," she recalls with a smile. "During the first week the other girls laughed at me, and I couldn't handle the ball, but it gave me ambition to excel past their level. Mother was the coach, so I felt I had a responsibility. Within a short period I got really turned on and since then I haven't left the gym."
Within a year she was traveling with the national under-17 team. By the time she was 21 Anna's talent had led her to Switzerland, where she met her sister Poli, who had arrived with Maccabi Ra'anana for an exhibition game against another local team. The coach, Ran Asher, wanted to add another foreign player, and convinced Anna to come to Israel. "I saw the level wasn't so high," she recalled of the first days. "It was a mess and not managed very professionally. I was in shock and considered leaving, but I loved the atmosphere."
She says at first she didn't want to learn Hebrew because she didn't think she would stay very long, but she developed a special relationship with the other players. "Family was always important to me, and I wanted to play again with Poli. Maybe it was a mistake professionally, but I told myself that the personal angle is above all else."
After a number of months of adjustment, Anna met her first husband and knew she had found her place. She returned to Bulgaria just to finish her degree in physical education, and in parallel learned to read and write Hebrew at a Jewish school. After two years of being a foreign athlete, she received Israeli citizenship. Eventually, she divorced and met Tomer Farhi, who was Poli's masseur and became Anna's second husband.
In 2007, the national women's volleyball team began its reforms under coach Arie Selinger, known as the Selinger Project. Farhi was an integral part of the project, but the European association made her wait two years before she could represent Israel at official games.
"It was very hard," she recalls. "In practices I was in the starting six, and then, at the critical moments, I couldn't play and contribute from the adrenaline within me. I didn't find myself, and I was on the road to nowhere."
During her two-year cooling off period, she reevaluated her personal life and decide that being 29 already it was time to have children. She became pregnant and says she rediscovered herself. "I cleared my head and didn't think about sport," she says. "I worked as a salesperson in a clothing store, and it was an amazing life because I integrated fashion with communications," she jests. "After all the travel and practices that prevented me from paying full attention to the family, I suddenly saw that I'm a woman - who cooks and waits for my husband to come home."
Last October Farhi returned to intensive practices with the national squad, just in time for the team's run for the European Championships. "I had an enormous desire," she says. "I'm very positive, believe in good energy, love fooling and joking around on the court to help drive the team and get it out of difficult situations. I was always very emotional, but as a mother I became more responsible."
Tomorrow, 14 years after the youth championships with Bulgaria, Farhi will lead the Israeli women's volleyball team. "It's the greatest moment of my career, but I am not stressed and expect to celebrate like when I was 17 - with a lot of fans and butterflies in my stomach when we come out to warm up," she says. "It's something great, though many in Israel don't understand it. In Israel we have a lot of pressure on us. We are criticized from every direction, and volleyball is a fringe sport. I walk on the street and people ask me if I am a basketball player. When I answer, 'Volleyball,' they look at me disparagingly. Only family and close friends know what a heavy price we pay. There are mothers who missed the first day of their children's school. After two weeks abroad, I came to take my son from his grandmother and he didn't want to come with me. He cried as if I were a stranger. Do you know how that feels? But we stay strong and carry on."
Farhi, who thinks about running a gym one day, doesn't intend to play much longer. Next season, she and her husband will move to Azerbaijan with their family to try out the local league there.
She says she is grateful to her mother for introducing the sport to her. "Several times I wanted to throw in the towel, but she always supported me and knew I had it," she says. "I am very proud of what the squad has done so far. We'll have to put up a fight, and it won't be an easy championship, but for all the girls in the project, these four years were the hardest and best of their lives. Now, it's the cherry on top."