A few minutes after the end of the European Figure Skating Championship on Saturday, Igor and Lena Zaretski received confirmation that their children Roman and Alexandra Zaretski had made the cut for next month's Winter Olympics in Turin.
Igor and Lena received the news in Metulla - Roman, 22, and Alexandra, 18, had finished 15th at the European Championship in Lyon, France, their first major championship on the senior circuit.
It was a dream come true for both Roman and Alexandra as well as their parents. "Our success is completely due to our parents," Roman says. "If it weren't for them, we would never have started skating, and if it weren't for them, we would never have continued skating. They were behind us all the way; I don't understand how they did it, financially and emotionally."
Lena and Igor Zaretski came to Israel from Belarus in 1992. Roman was six years old and already knew how to skate, but "took my first real steps in Metulla." Alexandra grew up on the ice in Metulla under the guidance of her parents, who are ice skating coaches at the city's Canada Center.
Igor and Lena decided four years ago that Roman and Alexandra would have to take their next step on their own, and sent them to train in New Jersey. "It was tough at first," Roman says. "Suddenly you have to get by on your own. I really admire my parents for their support; until now I don't know how they did it. The scholarships we receive are very small, and life is very expensive. Perhaps after the Olympics we can find a sponsor and relase our parents from the burden."
Until last year, Roman and Alexandra competed on the junior circuit. This year they moved on to the senior circuit. "It's a different world," Roman admits. "The level is much higher; it demands a lot more effort and concentration. We have switched coaches, and he has taught us a lot of new things."
The pair's last championship on the junior circuit was the World Championship in which they finished fourth. But it was there that they experienced the problematic nature of their sport first hand. "We deserved a medal. We gave an excellent performance against pairs from Russia, the U.S. and Canada, but Israel bothered all of them, and instead of finishing on the podium we finished fourth. I hope that it won't happen again, but it happens to Galit Chait and Sergei Sakhnovsky, as I saw very clearly at the European Championship."
Chait and Sakhnovsky - Israel's top figure skating pair - finished fifth at the European Championship. Since the World Championship in 2002, where they took silver, Chait and Sakhnovsky have not won a medal at a major event, and the feeling in the Israeli camp is they are being singled out. "It was crystal clear in Lyon," Roman says. "Our pair gave an outstanding performance - together with the Ukranians they were the best pair at the championship - but they didn't win a medal. It was especially obvious in the compulsory dance when the French pair fell after a gross error, but still finished ahead of Galit and Sergei. I can't explain it. Galit feels like giving up. She cried after that, and we had to calm her down. I don't know how she goes on."
But Roman doesn't think the discrimination against the Israeli skaters will repeat itself at the Winter Olympics. "I think it will be different," he says. "If the Russians skate there like they did at the European Championship, I don't think they'll succeed. They shouldn't have been on the podium in Lyon; Galit and Sergei should have been there."
Roman and Alexandra had been skeptical about their own chances of finishing 15th at their first senior championship and making the Winter Olympics. They trained up to nine hours a day prior to the competition in the U.S. with Evgeny Filatov - a two-time Olympic gold medal winner, who also coaches Chait and Sakhnovsky.
"Like a regular job, just with a lot of physical effort," says Roman, who although he gets a lot of time off, is still doing his military service. Alexandra, meanwhile, is completing her American high school studies, mostly over the Internet.
Brother and sister pairs are not rare in ice skating - a Scottish sibling pairing finished eighth in Lyon. The family connection is an advantage, Roman says. "We understand each other without talking; a facial expression or eye movement is enough."
Next week, the Zaretskis head to Moscow for a training camp, and in two weeks they will be in Turin for the Winter Olympics.
Their expectations aren't high for now, but they have an eye on the future. "If we finish in 21st place that will be a great achievement, but 24th is more realistic in our first Olympics," Roman says. "Perhaps we'll reach the top in 2014."
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