The Israeli Fencer Fighting to Keep the Shabbat - and His Championship

Underdog Yuval Freilich, 24, is first Israeli to win European Fencing Championships: 'I had to make a decision: either I give up fencing and observe Shabbat, or I continue to compete and see how far I can get'

Yuval Freilich wins European Fencing Championships in Germany, June 18, 2019.

It’s not every day that you become the first Israeli to do something. Certainly when it comes to being the first Israeli to become the European champion in something. Yuval Freilich now has to get used to this situation.

“We woke up here to craziness, it’s something completely new to us,” he told Haaretz on June 19, the morning after he won the gold. “We’re trying to grasp it. On the one hand, nobody saw it coming; on the other, that’s the situation at this moment. I’m a little confused, to tell you the truth. It was really a fantastic day. Everything worked: the fencing, the energy, the feeling. It just all came together. Amazing, a truly unbelievable feeling, but I still have to digest it.”

The victory by 24-year-old Freilich in the European Fencing Championships in Germany in the individual épée category was a complete surprise. From 40th place in the world, with impressive achievements chalked up only at a younger age, he executed a meteoric leap.

European Fencing Championships in Germany.

“I woke up as a rank-and-file fencer, not a bad one, but not a leading candidate to win the competition,” he says. “It’s different from the youth contests, when I came as a leading fencer and one of the favorites to win. This time I came as an underdog – I wasn’t a candidate for a medal, certainly not in the final stages of the competition.”

In Israeli sports making a successful transition from youth to adult competitions is not something to be taken for granted. It took Freilich time too, but then something happened.

“There was a click,” he explains. “The abilities are there; I know that. The team I train with knows that. In every competition, especially during this season, there’s always something missing: I would fix that thing in advance of the next competition, and then there would be something else. But suddenly there wasn’t [anything missing]. All I had to do was to collect everything and bring it to the competition. Everything connected, the fencing, the energy, the feeling. It just all came together and this is what came out. An amazing, really unbelievable feeling.”

What made the difference, he says, was his ability to “let go of thoughts like ‘How am I going to win?’ Or ‘What will happen if I lose?’ Or ‘How am I supposed to deal with a particular rival?’ The sort of thoughts that keep you from being present at that moment, and to fence the next point. I see that in great athletes in other sports – their ability to be present, to play at a certain moment. That’s the difference between them and other athletes. Yesterday that really worked in my favor.”

Yuval Freilich gives an interview after winning the European Fencing Championships.

Freilich began fencing at the age of 5, when his family lived in Australia (his parents are both from there). He fell in love with it quickly: “It’s a unique sport, a different sport. Fencing has movement, and it’s swords and it’s exciting – every kid likes to think about swords. I have very good eye-hand coordination. I’ve always been quite an individualist in my approach. I didn’t want to be part of a team, neither in soccer nor in basketball. It allows me to be myself.”

When his family immigrated to Israel and went to live in the settlement of Neve Daniel in Gush Etzion, in the West Bank, he began fencing at a Jerusalem club, coached by Pasha Evdokimov, and continued with him until he was 15. In those years Freilich’s name became familiar in the local sports world, but not necessarily thanks to his achievements: Yuval and his father petitioned the High Court of Justice demanding an end to competitions on Shabbat in Israel, since he and his family are observant and this constituted a form of discrimination against him. The High Court issued a temporary injunction for two years, which called for awarding Freilich a technical win for every competition held on Shabbat in which he couldn’t participate. The competitions continued to be held.

“In general at the time – being an observant 13-year-old boy, who grew up in a religious community in Gush Etzion – I didn’t want to compete on Shabbat,” he explains today. “I didn’t see that I had to give up something on which I was brought up, something that was one of the most important things in my life, which is observing Shabbat. The battle was unsuccessful. I had to make a decision: either I give up fencing and observe Shabbat and don’t compete, or I continue to compete and see how far I can get.”

He didn’t give up and at the age of 16, Freilich started to train with Ohad Balva of the Kfar Sava Fencing Association, today the team’s coach. Freilich decided to begin competing on Shabbat – mainly abroad but also in Israel – and began to collect the medals. A bronze in the World Champion for cadets in 2010; another bronze in the European Youth Championships in 2012; gold medals in European Youth Championships in 2014 (which were held in Israel) and in 2015, and a silver in the under-23 European Championships in 2016.

“It wasn’t an easy decision, of course,” he recalls. “It breaks a lot of my conventions with myself, with the way I was raised, with the family. It’s a decision I made – is it right? Not right? I can’t tell you. But it wouldn’t have been at all possible to reach these results had I not made that decision.”

Adds Freilich, “The moment I saw that not only would I have to compete on Shabbat but that I could really succeed and reach places that, as an athlete, I aspire to and dream about and think about – I realized I’d have to give up Shabbat in Israel too.”

When he doesn’t compete on weekends, Freilich tries to “rest at home” and observe Shabbat. Although he is no longer observant, he says that is still part of his basic ideology: “There’s an additional, super-important element about it, which is why we fought in the first place: the centrality and importance of Shabbat as part of the Jewish lifestyle, and in the Israeli public domain. There’s a very big problem with the fact that there are competitions in Israel on that day. I think that the battle at the time was right, was just, and that it should be completed.”

Stamp of approval

The brand-new title of “European champion” has given him a kind of stamp of approval: Freilich defeated rivals who are considered stronger than he is. Now he seems to be unstoppable.

“It’s the most difficult competition,” he says, adding that Europe has the highest concentration of top-ranking fencers in the world. He defeated one of them, the Ukrainian Bohdan Nikishyn, ranked third in the world, in the quarter finals, and overcame Italian Andrea Santarelli, ranked 13, after losing to him in the three previous bouts.

One factor that contributed to this, Freilich notes, is the fact that the Israelis who participate in the épée event (named after the largest and heaviest weapon used in sport fencing) train as a team and challenge one another.

“I, Ido Harper, who is the senior fencer, and Daniel Lis, work together, and Gershon Baskin lives in Sweden but came to train with us before this competition,” he says. “There aren’t many fencers in Israel who can take us out of our comfort zone, and push and improve – but the four of us train together and there’s no question that without them, it would be impossible. They are totally a part of this victory.”

The team practices every day, but the fencers must simultaneously find a way to earn a living, since fencing is not exactly the most highly budgeted sport in the country. At the moment Freilich is working toward a master’s degree in law and government at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya.

“On a system-wide level, as a team, we’re not lacking much,” he says. “But additional assistance that could help us travel to another training camp and bring more competitors here to Israel – that’s something that’s really missing. It would help the sport to keep on the good athletes who have to retire because they can’t support themselves and are forced to leave to study or work. There are quite a few things that constitute obstacles to the development of fencing, and of sports in Israel in general. Judo is rightfully in a different place, and we aspire to reach it.”

If nothing else, a gold medal helps to push one to center stage. An even bigger push would be the possibility of the Israeli fencing team participating in the Olympic Games in Tokyo in 2020.

Freilich: “Fencing is one of the most difficult sports in which to achieve individual Olympic eligibility. Most of our efforts are aimed at the group criteria. We aspire to that because we know it will provide an opportunity for more Israelis to participate in the Games.”

Freilich can also qualify by himself for the individual épée competition – for example, if he wins the last European tournament held prior to the Olympics. He certainly envisions himself there.

“The real challenge,” he concludes, “is very difficult, now that I know what my abilities are when things come together – but I also have to know how to bring all that to the upcoming competitions. This time everything came together, but nobody promises that it will happen again. I have to work very hard with myself in order for that to happen again.”

Let’s hope for him that it will indeed happen – even more than once.