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Itai Chima yesterday became the first Israeli swimmer to punch his ticket to the 2008 Beijing Olympics by qualifying for the 200-meter backstroke at the World Swimming Championships in Melbourne, Australia.

The 21-year-old Israel Defense Forces soldier finished the qualifiers in 14th place with a time of 2:00.93, 0.78 seconds faster than his previous best.

"I knew that I needed to improve my personal best to reach the semifinals, and when I saw the result, I knew I was in," Chima said. "I've dreamed of reaching the Olympics my entire life. That's the longing of every athlete in competitive sports."

Chima worked hard to reach his goal. He began swimming at the age of six in Yavne under the tutelage of Guy Yisraeli and Guy Gershgoren. At 14 he moved to Rehovot, where he was coached by Arnon Avni. At 18 he entered the Wingate Institute, where he currently trains under national coach Leonid Kaufman while representing Maccabi Kiryat Bialik.

The swimmer progressed at a slow pace, and he only saw results after several years of training. "I have believed in working hard my entire life, and I thought I wouldn't fulfill my potential," Chima said. "But after lots of training and competitions in Israel, along with the experience I received abroad, it's finally paid off."

Chima's best performance to date was at the 2006 European Short Course Championships in Helsinki, where he reached the semifinals of the 50-meter backstroke with a time of 25:22, just 0.20 seconds off Eitan Orbach's Israeli record. He also reached the semifinals of the European Championships in Budapest last year.

In yesterday's semifinals, Chima came in 16th with a time of 2:01.79.

In the qualifiers, Ehud Segal recorded a time of 2:02.02 in the 200-meter backstroke, finishing 22nd.

Tom Beeri came in 31st in the 200-meter breaststroke with a time of 2:16.32.