In the summer of 2006, Marina Ohman traveled with the Israeli national weightlifting team to a Ukrainian training camp to prepare for the world championships. Staying in her hotel was a senior member of the Ukrainian men's squad, Anatoliy Mushyk.
They each practiced separately, but they exchanged glances in the lunchroom, and began flirting with one another. They corresponded furiously after she returned to Israel until they met again at the world championships. The next time she visited Ukraine, Ohman was introduced to Mushyk's parents.
"We maintained our relationship via the Internet and phone calls," recalls Ohman. "We saw each other mainly at competitions and training camps."
They consummated their three-year romance by getting married last October 9 and then had to decide where to settle down. Mushyk suggested his home country, where as a top athlete he is entitled to an apartment, car, plot of land and a respectable salary.
"We could have lived there," but we decided we want to bring respect to Israel," says Ohman, explaining why they gave up a tempting lifestyle to share an apartment with her parents in Be'er Sheva. "I miss the family in Ukraine and never dreamed of marrying a weightlifter, but now I'm with the woman I love," says Mushyk.
He adds he has it good here and enjoys the warmth. Ohman blushes, then says, "Wait until he sees the summer."
The couple's decision to live here could impact the sport's development in Israel. Marriage has landed Israel another Olympic hopeful in Mushyk, who finished eighth in the under-94kg category in the 2004 Athens Games and says politics kept him out of Beijing. "Anatoliy can bring a great push to the Israeli sport," says Ohman. "When you have a strong athlete, the rest always strive to reach his level. Our best athletes see him lifting 200kg and suddenly believe they can, too. Before he arrived, they didn't dare discuss that weight, and now they see it as possible."
Mushyk set his personal best of 395 kilograms in 2004, 49 kilos clear of the Israeli record, but 11 short of the gold medal lift in Beijing and 17 below the world record.
While everyone is thirsting to see him compete, bureaucracy is holding him up. Mushyk, who is not Jewish, only hold a work permit. The couple is pressing the Interior Ministry to make him a temporary resident as a first step toward citizenship. Ohman's marital status is "under clarification," according to her Israeli identity card. Only official state recognition of their union will clear the way for Mushyk to compete for Israel.
"I still haven't proved myself, I have to show I'm worth it," says the Maccabi Tel Aviv coach modestly, who has now completed the two-year waiting period of not participating in any international competition required before being allowed to represent the blue-and-white flag.
Meanwhile, he will compete this weekend in the Israel Championship as a foreigner, and Ohman will have to get by without him at April's European Championship. If they can arrange his status by September, he will qualify for the World Championships in Turkey.
Ohman, Israel's best female weightlifter, has Olympic designs of her own. The judo champion of Israel as a girl, she switched to weightlifting five years ago when she was unable to recover from a serious knee injury.
"Every woman who competes at the world level has to develop a physical stature that isn't the most feminine," she says.
"Swimmers, sprinters or judokas - they're all muscular with broad shoulders, so I don't think at all that weightlifting is unfeminine. When I'm walking in the street, especially in the summer, one guy will be attracted and the other won't like my appearance, but in any event no one remains apathetic."
Last year, Ohman squeezed her way into the European top 10. This year, between frequent injuries and supplementing her income as a physical education teacher, the 26-year-old is fighting to stay near the top.
"One of my dreams is that Anatoliy and I will compete together in London 2012," she says. "I hope I'll win in the Israeli and European championships and wish citizenship for Anatoliy because I believe in him as an athlete."
Mushyk may not be Israeli yet, but his Zionist heart seems to be beating already when he declares, "My biggest dream is to win an Olympic medal for Israel."
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