Four formative events in six years tell the unique story of Yuval Freilich, the finest Israeli fencer in years.
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In 2008, as national champion in the 13-and-under category, Freilich – who comes from a religiously observant home – sued to stop the Israel Fencing Association from holding competitions on Shabbat, but to no avail. Come 2010, when the Junior and Cadet Fencing World Championships were held in Baku, Azerbaijan, Freilich competed for the first time on Shabbat - and won the bronze medal.
Within two years he had won the gold in the Junior and Cadet championships in Moscow, and last Shabbat he won the European Junior Championships, held in Israel.
The epee competitions (one of the three branches of fencing, in addition to the foil and the saber) were moved from Jerusalem to Ganei Tikva due to ultra-Orthodox pressure to maintain the sanctity of Shabbat in the capital. To watch their son fence against the top European competitors, Freilich’s parents checked in Friday to a hotel in Yehud, and walked to the nearby venue.
“I was indifferent to what was going on, I wasn’t at all tuned in to the competition and the atmosphere,” Freilich recalls, adding that he surrendered in the first three rounds and was on the verge of elimination early on in the competition last week. At that stage Shraga Sade, the psychologist who has been accompanying the 19-year-old fencer for the past few months, went with him to get some fresh air outside the hall.
“You have no choice,” Sade explained to his protégé. “Either you continue the easy way, with this indifference, and the end will not be pleasant, or you’ll make a switch and bring something else.”
Freilich came back to his senses, returned to the competition and fenced all the way to the recording of Israel’s national anthem.
It was the high point of his short career, which actually began at the Sydney, Australia Olympics. His Australian-born parents had previously immigrated to Israel, where their four children were born, but in 2000 the entire family returned to Australia for several years because of his father’s job.
“Each of my siblings had a hobby,” Freilich says. “I wanted to have something too, and my father suggested fencing. I didn’t know what it was, but the moment I saw the foils at the 2000 Olympics I was turned on.”
Thus Freilich became a rare sports story in the Israeli landscape: a fencer who is not an immigrant from the Former Soviet Union and even wears a skullcap.
“I was attracted by the need to make decisions, to think under pressure and to develop coordination. I liked the movement during the round, I turned it into a type of dance and I really enjoy it. I never was interested in a group sports, I really like to cope by myself, to make decisions or find solutions on my own.”
Freilich grew up in Gush Etzion, outside of Jerusalem, and trained in Jerusalem with trainer Ohad Balva. Four years ago he began fencing in Kfar Sava, and last year his family moved to Havatzelet Hasharon and shortened his traveling time.
Already at the outset of his career Freilich was forced to deal with a particularly significant obstacle: competitions on the Sabbath.
“When I was 13, all I wanted was to be a good religious boy,” he recalls.
“I couldn’t decide by myself what I wanted to do when there was a competition on Shabbat,” he continues. “When I competed on one during 2010 they made a big deal of it, but since then I’ve decided that if the competitions fall on Shabbat, I compete.”
‘Doing the right thing’
When the timetable for the European Championships in Israel was published, Freilich saw that the epee event was once again scheduled for the least desirable day of the week.
“It really bothered me,” he admits. “I had to forget about it immediately, but it really made me angry. If they had paid attention in time, it may have been possible to change it. But there’s no issue here of my conscience bothering me, I think I’m doing the right thing.”
The European junior champion is willing to be flexible, he says, but he believes that when it comes to competitions on Saturdays in Israel, things should be done differently.
“There are still fencing competitions here on Shabbat, and when I see it now, as someone who decided that he has to devote several Shabbat days each year to fencing – I still think it’s so absurd and terrible that such a thing is happening in Israel. There are a variety of opinions and everyone sees himself in a different place, but when in the Jewish state there are athletes who have to think twice whether to participate in competitions because they are held on Shabbat, that’s really not right and not fair. It still bothers me, and I still think, ‘Wait a minute, why do I have to do this on Shabbat?’”
How does Freilich think other Israeli athletes should behave? “I’m not a rabbi, I don’t have the authority to decide whether or not it’s right in terms of halakha [Jewish religious law]. It’s a dilemma that no Jew in this country should have to deal with. When I petitioned the High Court in 2008 people said that it’s religious coercion. I’m not forcing anyone to observe Shabbat, but I think people here are really forcing us not to observe it. An athlete should do what feels right to him. I don’t think that religion is a factor that affects the chances of success in sports, art or singing.”
He still has no official sponsor, but the Israel Olympic Committee and the fencing club in Kfar Sava are trying to ensure that – with the exception of the Shabbat issue – this most promising, outstanding talent will lack for nothing.
A short conversation with this young man, now serving in the army as an outstanding athlete at the Wingate Institute for Physical Education and Sports, is enough to understand that he is a mature person who has his act together, is emotionally strong and very articulate.
“In fencing you need a lot of experience. The more mature you are, the more you will succeed, because you have to exercise self-control. From the age of 13 I’ve been training with fencers who are older than I am, and that has a great influence,” he says.
Freilich aspires to reach the 2016 Games in Rio with the Israeli epee team. He also has dreams about the adult individual competition. “I won’t stop with the junior league. My dream is an Olympic gold medal. That’s the fantasy, and the challenge is to turn it into reality. They wrote this week that I said ‘an Olympic gold medal, with God’s help,’ but nothing is with God’s help. “Everything is with the help of the trainers and the athletes with whom I fence. Whatever happens, happens, and if I’m disappointed it won’t be connected to God.”