Laurie Copans Trying to Change Attitudes

Nir Yahalom
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Nir Yahalom

Mountain biker Laurie Copans sports her most closely held trophy on her chin, a scar which required five stitches from a fall after a long downhill stretch in a race on the Carmel.

Copans is the national champion in a sport with very few local female competitors, but she has hopes of representing Israel at the Athens Olympics in 2004. For that to happen, however, she will require far more recognition and funding.

Copans was born in Jericho, Vermont 33 years ago and as a youngster was more interested in skiing and ice skating. She wasn't brilliant at it but she was hooked on the thrill of competing on the edge and testing her ability in traversing obstacles while going downhill.

These attributes are also a part of mountain biking. "The object in both sports is the same - getting from point A to point B in the shortest time possible while negotiating various obstacles and utilizing technical ability," Copans explains.

"The Adrenalin rush is very similar in both skiing and biking, although there are differences in the terrain. In skiing its on the snow and ice while on a bike you have the mud and the puddles," she says.

"The varied conditions in Israel are a great advantage," Copans feels.

Copans competed as a skier and a skater as a girl, but in high school she took up running. A knee injury put an end to those ambitions, however, and she moved on to bicycle racing.

Copans, now an Associated Press staffer working out of the Jerusalem bureau, spent a while in Israel between her under-graduate and MA university studies, between 1990 and 1992.

She moved from road racing to mountain biking in 1994 because of the more attractive scenery.

"You feel much more a part of nature when you ride off road, especially where there is mud around," she says.

In 1995, Copans came back to Israel and was urged by friends to compete in the national championships. She thought that she would have a chance because of the paucity of female competitors and she finished first, but the winners' trophy went to another rider because somebody had discovered that Copans was not yet an Israeli citizen. It was a rude introduction to the peculiarities of Israeli bureaucracy.

The following year and for the next four, Copans won the national title but in the last competition she relinquished the winners' trophy due to a flat tire. The title went to Shani Bloch, although Copans did manage to win the road race title as a consolation.

The victories have brought little satisfaction to Copans, who is one of only 13 Israeli female cycling competitors, and of those there are only three of high quality. "The fact that I am almost alone among the competitors and often alone on the podium is depressing," Copans says.

She set up an organization called "Women on Wheels" (WOW) in order to try and further a sport which has not attracted great enthusiasm from local riders.

Recreational riders are beginning to take an interest but it's slow going. "We have about 50 members who enjoy cycling for fun. A few days ago we held a ride near Kibbutz Be'eri with some 20 riders taking part, I hope that we will have more toward the summer," she says.

Poor sporting image

More than concentrating on just her sport, Copans is trying to change the self-image of women and the anti-sporting attitude which she says is the norm in this country.

She offered to write a column in a leading women's magazine about what it's like to be an athlete preparing for the Olympic Games, but the magazine told her that its target readership was more interested in shopping, makeup and clothes, and other more feminine subjects. Sport was not one of the issues at the forefront of Israeli women's minds, she was told.

"The education system in the U.S. allows for complete equality between boys and girls, but I don't see that happening here, although I do see us beginning to break free of the stigma," she says.

"There is nothing more pleasing than for a woman to beat an Israeli man but because of the cultural mind-set people in this country are surprised when such a thing happens," Copans continues.

Copans won a race in Cyprus at the weekend which furthers her series of successes. She was third at an event in Turkey a few weeks ago and was 34th out of 68 riders in the European championships. Her world ranking until this weekend had her in 85th position. At the weekend, she won an international competition in Cyprus, cycling 28 kilometers in 1:37, pushing her up to 70th place.

Had she been able to compete in Sydney, she could have finished in 30th place, because each nation is allowed to send no more than three competitors to the games.

The average age of top class international riders is 32, while the world NO. 15 rider is 43 years old. Copans will be 35 at the time of the Athens Olympics, but help in her preparations is hard to find. Together with husband Danny Zaken, a radio reporter, she is looking for funding so that she can devote herself to her sport on a full-time professional basis but that costs over NIS 100,000.

In the meantime she gets sponsorship from Volvo Cannondale with two bicycles and spare parts, and other peripherals such as food supplements and medication. She is also asking for monthly sponsorship of NIS 5,000 from the Absorption Ministry, the Cycling Union and the Olympic Committee of Israel.

Gili Lustig, the head of the Elite Sports Unit which determines criteria for aspiring Olympic athletes says that a decision on funding will be taken later this month. In the meantime, Copans receives medical and scientific assistance.

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