Israeli Athletes Gun for Olympic Gold - or at Least the Finals

The cream of the crop, mainly immigrants from colder climates, prepare for Winter Games in Sochi.

Evgeni Krasnopolski remembers the time his Israeli buddies mocked him for choosing the tight-fitting costumes of figure skaters over the oversized jerseys and shoulder pads of ice hockey players.

“They told me I looked like a girl,” he said with a discernible chuckle. “When I was in school I had a lot of problems with that.”

More than a decade later, Krasnopolski is having the last laugh. Next month, the 25-year-old Ukrainian native will represent Israel at the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia. He and his skating partner, 16-year-old Vermont native Andrea Davidovich, earned a respectable seventh-place finish in the senior pairs competition at the European Skating Championships earlier this month in Budapest, Hungary.

“We were shocked,” Krasnopolski told Haaretz from Hackensack, New Jersey, where he has been training for the games. “We expected to make it into the top 16. The competition was very tough. But we did it.”

Rounding out the Israeli delegation are two skaters, also born in Ukraine: Alexei Bychenko, 25, a figure skater who finished 10th in the senior men’s single event at the European championships, and Vladislav Bykanov, 24, a short-track speed skater who placed in the top-ten in the 500, 1,000 1,500- meter competitions earlier this month at the European championships in Dresden, Germany.

“I’m excited but I’m also stressed,” confided Virgile Vandeput, the 19-year-old Belgian skier who is Israel’s lone entry in the sport at the games. A former member of Belgium’s national skiing team, Vandeput, whose mother is Israeli, will compete in two events in Alpine Skiing: Giant Slalom and Special Slalom. He has been representing Israel in international competitions for four years.

“I am very proud to represent Israel,” said Vandput, whose grandparents split their time between Israel and Belgium and whose cousins live in Israel’s central cities of Tel Aviv and Rishon Lezion. “My whole family lives there.”

Vandeput, whose 55 FIS (International Ski Federation) points rank him at the midpoint, according to International Olympic Committee criteria (with zero points being championship-grade), is expected to finish “in the top 50,” predicts New York City native Stanley Rubenstein, the honorary president of the Israel Ski Federation. “Virgile has been skiing competitively since he was 10 or 11 years old, at least,” added Rubenstein, a former ski instructor, who spoke to Haaretz from France, where Vandeput has been training in Brides les Bains, near Meribel. “Otherwise you can’t get to this level.”

Were it not for his parents, Krasnopolski – who was three years old when he immigrated to Israel with his parents from Kiev – probably would have ended up as a swimmer.

“My family had a membership to the Canada Center in Metula,” said Krasnopolski, referring to the sprawling sports complex in Israel’s northernmost city, some 190 kilometers north of Tel Aviv. “I went because of the swimming pool.” After his parents registered him for a skating “chug,” or after-school activity, at its Olympic-size rink, Krasnopolski took a liking to the sport, only to be conflicted. His father pushed him towards ice hockey, while his mother favored figure skating. “It took me six months to decide which one I wanted more,” recalled the 5-foot-11 Krasnopolski, who lived in the northern city of Kiryat Shmona for 10 years. “I wanted to continue with figure skating, so the hockey was, just, gone.”

This will be the sixth winter games for Israel, which sent a four-member delegation to the Vancouver games in 2000. No Israeli team has earned a medal at the games.

“I hope we make the finals in every event we enter,” says Boris Chait, president of Israeli Ice Skating Federation and father of Galit, a world bronze medal skating finalist who serves as coach of Israel’s Olympic and national skating teams. “I am cautiously optimistic.”

Israel's Andrea Davidovich, left, and Evgeni Krasnopolski perform during pairs free skating of the Golden Spin figure skating competition in Zagreb, Croatia, Dec. 7, 2013.Credit: AP
Virgile Vandeput on the slopes.Credit: Getty Images

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