The Lone Rower

After being dropped by his Olympian partner, Barak Lufan took time out before attempting a comeback on his own.

Uri Talshir
Uri Talshir
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Uri Talshir
Uri Talshir

Team kayaking with Michael Kalganov, the seasoned Olympic medalist, seemed like a recipe for success to Barak Lufan. The pair got off to a good start in 2006 with a bronze medal in the 200-meter race - which at the time was a non-Olympic event - at the European Championships, sixth place in the 500-meter in the World Championships and an elegant entry into the broadened Olympic team.

A year later, however, the relationship between the two began to deteriorate and their results in the important competitions that served as criteria for Olympic qualification declined accordingly. Ahead of the 2008 European Championships, there was a race in Israel which was their last opportunity to punch a ticket to the Beijing Games.

"There was no coordination between us, and we looked awful," recalls Lufan. Just 19 years old at the time, the kayaker says he believed the two could rise to the occasion, but things didn't turn out that way. The day before the race, Kalganov informed him that he no longer wanted to row together. Kalganov had decided to return to solo kayaking, while Lufan had no partner for the final race. "I was supposed to meet the [Olympic] criteria and was left with nothing," says the young competitor. "It totally broke me."

Barak LufanCredit: Seffi Magriso

After missing the Olympics, Lufan tried to row on his own but gave up in January 2009. He told his pals at the Jordan Valley rowing club that he was going to travel abroad to clear his mind, and that maybe he would come back and maybe he wouldn't. He flew with his girlfriend across the Atlantic and traveled with her across Central America and the U.S., where he also worked as a summer camp counselor.

"I missed rowing, but I knew I had nothing to return for," he says. "I retired and was already thinking how I could study and work like everybody else."

Nearly a year after he had given up the kayak, Lufan received surprising news from his rowing club: The 200-meter race is going to be made an Olympic sport. He immediately reconsidered his retirement. "I was always a sprinter and I knew this was my chance," he says. "God gave me a gift, and I need to try to take it."

Lufan, 23, returned to rowing in 2009. "I wasn't there physically," he says. "I returned to Israel much heavier after eating on the trip, and I didn't do anything there," he says of the first races of his comeback attempt. "It took me a lot of time to remove the rust."

Lufan was born on Kibbutz Ginnosar, which his grandparents helped found 73 years ago. He began swimming in second grade, but five years later followed his friends into the Jordan Valley Rowing Club, which boasts the best rowers in the country.

O, My Kinneret

Alongside fulfilling his duties on kibbutz milking cows, Lufan won the national youth championship and reached number nine in the world for under-18 rowers. Lufan says over the years he has become addicted to the idyllic rowing on Lake Kinneret with its pastoral background. "I became attached to the place, and I loved the feeling in the water," he says. He adds that the level of the lake not only influences the country's water situation but also his training and the view from his window at home.

"Now I can barely come down to the water," he says. "The more the water level drops, the more I have to carry the kayak on my back, and the rocks are beginning to pop up. The kayak is not hard but rather made from coal fiber, so every blow can crack it." He says a kayaker has to be careful and go to where the water is deep. "My home is on the Kinneret, and I see the distance from the water growing and growing. Every year I cross my fingers and pray for the winter rains. My uncle even built a statue for [the rain]."

For the upcoming championships, Lufan has switched his venue to the beaches of Tel Aviv. If he can finish among the top 16 in his beloved 200-meter event at this week's World Championships, which run August 19-22, he will return to the Olympic team. He offsets training costs with a small grant from the Kayak Association and with support from the Nof Ginnosar Hotel, where he worked until recently as a bellhop. Making the Olympic team would add another NIS 2,500 per month, which would make his life a lot easier, he says.

"Sometimes I look at other sports that have a lot of money and think maybe I picked the wrong profession," he says, "but on the other hand I really love it, and this is my life. I have potential that needs to be realized."

He says he still dreams of racing in the Olympics and that missing out on Beijing grated at him. "I thought at the time that here I would soon be there, and I broke mentally. I got a second chance and I'm relying solely on myself."

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