'I Fainted Every Day and Urinated Blood': A Rare Illness Didn't Stop This Israeli Athlete From Winning 4 Gold Medals

Anyone who saw Lee Korzits win world windsurfing championships would have no idea that she was going through

'I won the most medals because my mind was much stronger,' Lee Korzits recalls.
Ilan Assayag

Lee Korzits, the four-time world champion in windsurfing, is standing with her feet in the clear water on the beach in Mikhmoret, a moshav in central Israel. “When you look at the sea, what do you see?” she asks. “When I look at it, I see the currents, the direction of the wind, its strength. I see the path I need to reach the point I choose to reach. I see everything.”

The pastoral tranquility of where she lives, like Korzits’ infectious positivity, bears no vestige of her medical condition. Anyone who saw her win three straight world championships between 2011 and 2013 would have no idea that she wasn’t sleeping at night, that she cried from the pain while competing and that she fainted once a day. Anyone who looks at her today cannot imagine what she went through. They didn’t know she went around with a bag connected to her navel, a replacement for her bladder, which had to be removed because of complications from a rare genetic disease. “My dream was to urinate standing, like men,” she says when she goes to her home bathroom to empty the bag, and adds with a smile: “Be careful what you wish for.”

Korzits began surfing at age 7. She later switched to windsurfing and sailing at the Mikhmoret sailing club. At 15, when she was sailing in the pairs competitions for 470 class boats, she was diagnosed with a chronic illness that was the result of a genetic mutation in her bone marrow cells – JAK2, after the Janus Kinase 2 gene.

“At first, they told me it was psychosomatic, we trained really hard and it was insanely stressful. So they told me it was all in my head,” she recalls. In the end, the doctors realized that it wasn’t. The tests showed that Korzits’ blood had too many platelets and barely flowed through her body. “At first, it was stressful because everyone thought, ‘cancer, cancer,’ and then they discovered I had a mutation in the bone marrow.”

None of this stopped the ambitious teenager from competing. The sea was her entire life. “I was forced to have periods without the sea, but there too I was with the sea,” she says. “It’s what helped me want to strengthen my body and return to the sea, and not to drown in sicknesses and pain – I always wanted to reach the sea. Most people have nothing to hold on to in difficult situations, and I had something.”

Nothing stopped her, not even the injury she suffered in 2009 in Hawaii, when she switched to extreme surfing. She had a day-long photo shoot for her sponsors, and while riding the waves, another Israeli surfer crashed into her with the nose of his surfboard. Korzits spun around between the huge waves and was thrown onto the rocks. She broke her leg and two ribs. In the hospital, the doctors told her she might be paralyzed and wouldn’t be able to return to surfing.

FILE Photo: Lee Korzits competes in the women's RS-X sailing class during the medal race at the London 2012 Olympic Games in Weymouth and Portland, southern England, August 7, 2012.
AFP

“What happened to me in rehabilitation was that suddenly I thought: ‘How did I take all my potential, all my dreams for an Olympic medal, how did I throw it all in the garbage?’ I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to walk or surf anymore,” she says today, more than a decade later. These forecasts never came true and Korzits recovered after a long rehabilitation process and returned to surfing. “I see a lot of people who block themselves from succeeding because of ego. From 2003 to 2011 I didn’t win any medals because of this ego. Only after the injury did I understand: I have something special, how did I throw it away?” she says.

After she recovered and began to do things her way, with “her” people, Korzits hit a new peak in her career. Even when she almost drowned during the European Championships in 2010 and was saved only by resuscitation, she didn’t give up, and returned to the water. Even then, it was a fascinating and inspiring story. But who had any idea of what was to come?

20 percent body, 80 percent mind

To win the World Championships at 18 and become the first female Israeli athlete to do so in an individual sport was something special. To come back from an injury that threatened to paralyze her and win three consecutive world championships, eight years after her first win – now that’s huge. To do all of this with a chronic illness that causes excruciating pain that is with you every minute of the day, and to do it without showing a trace of weakness, is unimaginable.

“If during all the years my body was at 80 percent, in these years it was at 20 percent to 40 percent. But I won the most medals because my mind was much stronger,” she says. “Willpower helped me more than anything. I missed the sea so much, I missed representing the country so much, to dream about an Olympic medal, until everything around me became insignificant.” Despite her illness and despite the pain, Korzits continued to advance – to the great joy of Israeli sport, but to the great sorrow of her body.

When Korzits had to select a treatment for the disease, she chose a chemical medication that enabled her to continue competing. But the pills raised her body’s acidity, and it’s possible that they destroyed her bladder. At the time, neither she or her doctors understood the reason for the excruciating pain that attacked her and forced her to have hundreds of sleepless nights. The years in which she won three straight gold medals at the World Championships were her most difficult ones.

“Usually in the race itself I was totally focused on the race, but I was in pain. There were situations when I cried during the races,” she says. “Even at the World Championships, at the pre-Olympics, where I came in third, there I really cried during it from the pain. There were things that I’m too embarrassed to tell. I needed to engineer myself – ‘Okay, I’m taking a deep breath and I’ll pump until I feel pain, and then stop and set a timer for myself with breaks during the race.’ I would really map out races, try to understand in which position my body hurt less. All this to manage to get the best out of myself despite the pain.”

It worked in three World Championships. But at the 2012 London Olympics, the hardest competition of her life in terms of her health, it was simply not enough. Korzits started using medical marijuana to cope with the pain, but a month before the Olympics she had to stop, since it’s not allowed when competing. “I didn’t sleep because of it, because I was in excruciating pain all night. With the cannabis I managed to sleep – even if I had to get up and urinate and it hurt, I managed to go back to sleep. Without cannabis, after such a strong shot of pain, I couldn’t fall asleep all night.”

Korzits remembers how every night in London was worse than one before it. On her phone she shows me a picture of a bucket full of blood, from one of the nights at the Olympic Village. The worst came the day before the medal race. She was hit by pain, one of the worst attacks she ever had, in the Olympic Village dining hall. She felt she was about to faint. Except for two close friends in the top ranks of world windsurfing, none of the competitors knew about her condition.

Lee Korzits at the beach in Mikhmoret, May 26, 2019.
Ilan Assayag

“All the members of the team shielded me so no one around would see,” she says. Korzits remembers that she couldn’t walk, and fellow windsurfer Shahar Tzuberi wheeled her out of the dining hall on a cart, as if it were a joke, so no one would see how much she was suffering. In the final medal race, her body had nothing left to give. After being ranked in the top three until the final race, Korzits finished in sixth place. No one outside her very small circle knew what she went through.

“The entire Olympic year was a crazy year. It was horrible,” she says. “Think about that if everyone flew in tourist class and I’m in business class without telling anyone why, and the head of the [sailing] federation just takes me from the airport in London by myself all the way to the Olympic Village. I had crates of medical stuff that the Wingate [institute for sport] provided me to make it easier for me. I was hospitalized in a lot of hospitals overseas.”

Could all of this have been prevented? “Of course,” she says. “A person urinates blood, faints once a day and no one, including me, tells them to stop. No one says: ‘Let’s see, maybe there are treatments that can help.’ Only after the World Championships after which I retired did I start turning to urologists, to receive treatments once a week, to receive Botox injections. It was then that I realized there was a lot that could be done, a lot.

"They gave me complicated tests and saw I didn’t have any mucous membranes in my body. I added two and two together: Why didn’t I have any mucus in my body? Because of the treatment. And then another two and two, all by myself. I switched to another doctor, stopped the chemical treatment and began biological treatment and then they discovered that the mucous membranes had returned. I did sports for two years with this drug that was the most acidic in the world, and it could be that because of it I’m left without a bladder and [have to] live what I have left to live with a disability. We didn’t say: ‘Let’s stop for a second, let’s check.’ And it’s sad, and I’m mad about it.”

To think about now

Korzits only realized she was really good at windsurfing after the World Championships in Rio de Janeiro in 2013. She says people always said that she wasn’t good in strong winds, but in Rio she emerged with the gold medal for the third time in a row, despite her seriousness illness and the terrible pain.

It was then she decided she could give everything up and focus on her health. She moved to the north with her then-partner and established a surfing club in Shavei Tzion, just south of Nahariya. In 2016, she underwent a complicated operation, carried out for the first time in Israel, to try to build her a new bladder. The surgery ran into difficulties. Korzits almost died, and went through six months of rehab in the hospital.

Today Korzits makes a living from lectures – she can be found through the Rafi Agiv talent agency – and coaches here and there. She also lives on money from the National Insurance Institute. “That’s what keeps me going today, the disability allowance,” she shares.

In a few months she will undergo another operation: Doctors will try to rebuild her bladder, since the previous operation was unsuccessful. Because of problems with her blood, this operation will be more complicated, and since she can’t know how long it will take to restore her health, it’s hard for her to think far into the future. She knows that she wants a family, a normal life, but in the meantime, she’s “totally living in the now.”

“Mostly I am enjoying living and love to surf, and will always do everything to feel good and surf. I think that when you have something that you love so much and you are so connected to, you discover how much stronger you are than what you thought,” she says. “I didn’t know that I’m so strong – I’m not Superwoman. It was the extreme situations that brought it out of me, it’s the survival instinct.”