This Hungarian Skier Just Gave Israel Its Best Showing at the Winter Olympics

Jewish-Hungarian skiers and siblings Barnabas and Noa Szollos represent Israel at the Winter Olympics. The icing on the cake: On Thursday, Barnabas tied Israel’s best-ever showing at a Winter Olympics

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Noa and Barnabas Szollos. An impressive achievement in Beijing.
Noa and Barnabas Szollos. An impressive achievement in Beijing.Credit: Peter Szollos
Ido Rakovsky
Ido Rakovsky
Ido Rakovsky
Ido Rakovsky

While a major Eastern Mediterranean storm – dubbed Elpis – was sweeping over Israel in late January, leaving snow in many areas, Hungarian-born Jewish skiers with Israeli citizenship Barnabas and Noa Szollos were making their final preparations to represent Israel in Beijing. For them, being surrounded by the white stuff is a daily reality.

Although they have never lived in Israel, they have strong ties to the country. “I don’t think we could compete at this level if it wasn’t while representing Israel,” 19-year-old Noa tells Haaretz.

“We represented the Hungarian Ski Association four years ago, but there was some friction there," says 23-year-old Barnabas. "They forbade us from competing for two years, right before the 2018 Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, so we couldn’t go,” referring to the South Korean city that hosted those games.

Family Szollos, from lest to right: mother Dora, Barnabas, Noa, eldest brother Benjamin and father Peter. Credit: Peter Szollos

The fact that Barnabas and his older brother, Benjamin – who just missed making the grade to compete in the Beijing – could not travel to the last Olympics led the family to sever their ties with the Hungarian Ski Association.

“It’s a long story,” said Noa. “There were always issues around money, so we decided to compete for Israel.” The decision was spearheaded by their father, Peter, who had trained Israeli skiers in Europe in the past. And there was an additional factor.

“It was mid-season, and we couldn’t compete until mid-January,” Barnabas said, “so, we just trained full-time, since without the association you can’t compete.”

That proved to be a wise decision: On Thursday, Barnabas Szollos came in sixth in the combined alpine event on Thursday. His sixth-place finish tied Israel’s best-ever showing at a Winter Olympics.

Best moments with Noa Szollos at Lausanne 2020

In the downhill portion of the combined event, Szollos finished 11th, but in the slalom part, he came in second, placing him in sixth position overall.

“It was very enjoyable,” said Szollos. “I tried to go as fast as I could in the downhill part, knowing that I could improve my standing in the slalom part, where I’m fast. It’s amazing to finish sixth. I’m very happy. Thank you to all the Israelis who got up early to watch and support me.”

Szollos also expressed his appreciation to his family, particularly his father, Peter, who is his coach in Beijing. “It’s an honor to be here and represent Israel,” said the skier, whose other family members also have Israeli citizenship.

Hungarian Ice queen Noa Szollos.Credit: Peter Szollos

Sufficient backing

Noa, who carried the Israeli flag at the opening ceremony in Beijing along with figure skater Evgeni Krasnopolski, remarked that “the freedom the Israel Ski Federation gave us is what really brought us this far.”

Any Israeli who has gone on a ski holiday in Europe or who even simply looked into it knows how expensive it can be. But when asked about it, Noa had a surprising answer.

“In comparison with the U.S. or Canada, training in Europe is very cheap. In America, a daily ski pass can cost $200. In Austria, on expensive slopes, it’s only 50 or 60 euros,” she said, or about $60 to $70. “Sometimes it’s more expensive, but luckily, we have sufficient backing to support what we do.”

She was given her skis by the Austrian firm Kastle while Barnabas and Benjamin got them at a reduced price. “That’s a great help. Usually they’re very expensive,” Noa said, adding that most of their expenses are paid by an electronic measuring device company that her family owns.

“The Israeli Ski Federation has also assisted us a lot in the last few years, which made things much easier,” Barnabas added. “That’s something we never got in Hungary.

Skier Barnabas Szollos in action.Credit: Peter Szollos

Our interview was conducted less than a day after the skiers and their father arrived in Beijing. “It’s great to be here,” said Noa. “I never thought we’d have such an opportunity. We’ve been competing for a long time, but being in an event like this is truly exceptional. I hope it’s not a one-time event but, hopefully, becomes one of my highlights in the coming years,” she added. Barnabas said he felt the same way. “We worked the whole time so we could get to the Olympics. We almost had a chance four years ago, and now we’ve finally gotten it.”

Noa made it a point of saying that her family obtained their Israeli citizenship because they are Jewish. When her father trained Israeli skiers, she was young, but her brothers, particularly Benjamin, “grew up with them.”

King Szollas

The three Szollas siblings worked hard from a young age, Barnabas said. “When we were kids, we practiced every day. We didn’t like it,” he acknowledged. “I don’t think any child likes it, but that’s what made us tough and that’s why we’re now here.”

As children, Noa remarked, they were involved in a whole range of sports, including water polo, gymnastics, tennis and swimming. “I always hated swimming, but I had to do it,” she noted. “You get used to it after awhile, and it’s worth it.”

Barnabas has another explanation for their success. “We competed with each other all the time,” he said. “We pushed one another to be better.”

Barnabas Szollos of Israel in action during training at the Winter Olympics.Credit: DENIS BALIBOUSE/ REUTERS

Alpine skiing at the Olympic Games involves five different disciplines. The difference among them is in the various combinations of speed and technique. There is downhill skiing, slalom, giant slalom, super giant slalom and combined alpine skiing.

Barnabas, who is competing in all five, noted that in downhill skiing, skiers can reach speeds of up to 150 kilometers (90 miles) per hour.

“It’s the fastest and apparently the most fun,” he said excitedly. “In all the other disciplines, you watch the gates. In downhill skiing, you still have to look out for them, but it’s designed so that you ski according to the slope’s natural contours.”

Noa is competing in the slalom, giant slalom and the super-G slalom events and expressed confidence that in the future, she would also compete in the downhill (“when I’m a little older”). For the time being, the giant slalom is her favorite.

“It’s more technical, more focused on the turns,” she explained. “You don’t get these long flat sections that you have in the super-G or downhill events.”

Barnabas and Noa Szollos wearing the Israeli team uniform in Beijing. Credit: Peter Szollos

Barnabas recommends watching video clips of the various disciplines to try to imagine the experience. “In downhill, you sometimes have huge leaps, 50 to 60 meters where you’re flying through the air. It’s like travelling down the road at 130 kilometers an hour, then leaping 40 meters.”

Asked whether it made him afraid, he said that it was not frightening. “When you descend you don’t feel fear. If you’re afraid, you’re better off quitting.”

Next visit to Israel unclear

This isn’t the first time Noa has attracted attention in Israel. Two years ago, at the Winter Youth Olympics in Lausanne, she became the first Israeli to win a medal – picking up a silver and a bronze.

“I went there knowing that Barni came in seventh four years earlier [representing Hungary], and I really wanted to repeat that. Super-G was the first discipline, but we didn’t have enough opportunities to train for that one, since speed training is difficult with a small contingent.”

She was hoping for better, she said, but didn’t really believe she would get that far.

Israel's Barnabas Szollos competes in the men's super-G final during the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games in Yanqing, earlier today.Credit: JOE KLAMAR - AFP

“When I got to the bottom and saw the numeral 1 at the finish line, I couldn’t believe it. I thought it was a mistake. There were two other girls who were slightly faster than me. Obviously, I was a little sad, but still, coming in third was a huge surprise and an amazing achievement.”

A day after getting the bronze medal, she added a silver in a combined event. “That’s still not my strong suit so I didn’t have that many hopes,” she admitted. “I got into second place and remained there until the end. It was definitely amazing and very nice.”

The Beijing Olympics are another story, especially during the coronavirus pandemic. “It’s calmer than I expected,” she noted. “People still wear masks and are tested, but it’s not as strict as I thought it would be, and there are many things you can do. It’s quite normal, given the circumstances.”

The Hungarian-Israeli skiers say that because they do outdoors sports with very little human contact, they’ve managed to maintain an almost full training regimen during the pandemic.

“It wasn’t hard like it must have been for others, but it was still difficult, especially in the beginning,” Noa said. “All the hotels were closed in Austria, so we didn’t know where to train. We had nowhere to sleep. But our training and skiing [in Hungary] weren’t affected that much.” Barnabas added that the government sometimes changed the rules overnight.

Flag bearers Noa Szollos of Israel and Evgeni Krasnopolski of Israel during the athletes parade at the opening ceremony. Credit: JONATHAN ERNST/ REUTERS

Prior to the first event in Beijing, they had three official training sessions. At the time of our interview, Barnabas said he was hoping to be among the first 15 in the downhill event, perhaps the top 10. Noa was also hoping to start well. She expressed the hope that she would be among the top 30 finishers in the first round of giant slalom. Barnabas teased her that after his first race, she would be under pressure to do better than he had.

Not many people engage in winter sports in Israel, and Barnabas has some advice for Israelis regarding the weather. “When I was there, it was really hot. If someone wants to cool off, they could try winter sports or go to the beach. If I go to the beach when its 35 or 40 degrees Celsius [95 to 104 Fahrenheit], I suffer. I need the cold.”

But what one sees in clips and beautiful photos from the skiing events doesn’t always match the reality. “Sometimes it snows or rains,” Barnabas noted.

When they visited the site of the Olympic ski events, it was minus 20 degrees Celsius. “That’s painful. With the wind chill, it feels like minus 35 degrees.”

The two siblings don’t know when they’ll visit Israel next, but they expressed the hope that Israelis would watch them compete, even though it will be very early in Israel.

“I think skiing is very interesting,” Noa exclaimed. “If you watch it a few times, it becomes interesting. We’ll give it everything we’ve got.”

“Barni’s achievement is impressive by any measure, in the top winter sports event,” said Yaniv Ashkenazi, the head of Israel’s delegation in Beijing. “He proved from the outset that he deserves to be on the podium with the big players, and he has proven it again.”

Szollos, whose sister Noa is also competing for Israel in Beijing, will receive a monthly stipend from the Israeli Olympic Committee, Ashkenazi said. “I’m happy and proud that he’s part of Israel’s Olympic family.”

Gili Lustig, the CEO of Israel’s Olympic committee, congratulated Barnabas Szollos. “He and his sister are young and promising athletes who will continue to represent us at the next Winter Olympics in Italy,” he said.

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