Jumping for Gold, Injuries and All

Danielle Frenkel had been sidelined by injuries for two years and counting. Now the champ is coming back.

Nir Kedar

February 22, 2013 was supposed to be another regular day for Danielle Frenkel. Israel’s female high jump champion had torn a knee ligament in December 2011 and was forced to miss the London Olympics.

Back in action, she was participating in an obscure competition. But just before the sprint to the bar, her left knee sent a warning signal and she stopped in her tracks.

“I felt a small movement in the knee and realized that something bad had happened,” she remembers. At the physiotherapy center in Hadar Yosef, with her parents and partner present, her physiotherapist examined her knee. After a few seconds of silence he told her that he thought she had torn her knee cross ligament again.

“I felt nauseous and chills all over," she recounts. “I hit the wall and cried out that I couldn’t go through all that yet again. The first operation really hurt and I knew how hard it would be. It was a nerve-racking weekend, since things were still not clear. Opinions regarding the ligament were divided. I felt bad and was very depressed. I cried all the time and didn’t know what to do.”

Imaging of her knee a few days later gave a clear diagnosis. The ligament was completely torn and new reconstructive surgery was required. “It didn’t cross my mind for a second that I might quit jumping,” she says. “I knew my body would heal and that this is an injury that athletes recover from. After my first injury, I went into surgery blindly, going to the most highly regarded surgeon in Israel. I followed all his instructions. This time my boyfriend and I decided to investigate things on our own.”

Two months of research led Frenkel to Florida, where she was operated on by Dr James Andrews. “Since everything in Israel is fraught with bureaucracy, I didn’t wait for financing to come through. I flew there and spent all the money I had saved at competitions.” After the operation she stayed at the modern medical center for another six weeks of rehabilitation. Twice a day, she had physiotherapy sessions, using the most up-to-date equipment, alongside basketball player Rajon Rondo and skier Lindsey Vonn.

Three weeks ago, she flew to Florida to receive the anticipated approval to gradually resume jumping. “With the second ligament reconstruction, things take longer, and this time I decided to do it as slowly as possible," she said. “This year, I won’t take part in any major competitions... My goal is to set criteria for the Rio Olympics by May 2015.”

Total unknown breaks record

Until four years ago, Frenkel was a totally unknown athlete. In the summer of 2010, she broke the Israeli record for the high jump and within a month attended the European finals in Barcelona. In March 2011, she came fourth in the indoor European championships held in Paris, setting the Israeli record at 1.94 meters.

Suddenly, she became one of the most recognized athletes in Israel. She suffered her first injury at a training camp in Moscow, while at the peak of her game.

“I decided to stay out of the limelight during my injury," she explains. “Public relations people invited me to events and it turned out that I was chosen as one of the top 10 influential women in fashion. That was nice, but I found it difficult to give interviews and to be up-front after my injury. Stories that aren’t connected to sport are nice, but they feel untrue to me. It’s nice to be flattered for one’s looks, but sport is what brought me fame. I like it when competitions and achievement speak for themselves. There are lots of pretty women but how many of them do the high jump? I missed the jumping that would express who I was.”

To fill up her spare time, Frenkel started studying law and business administration. It was hard for her to attend the Israeli athletic championship games. “It was difficult to be part of that world without really attending," she confesses. “Watching from the sidelines only made me think that I could have jumped higher.”

Sporting bodies in Israel accepted and nurtured you when you were at your peak. During rehab, with no cameras around, did you still get such a warm reception?

“The Olympic Committee and the Athletic Union finally reimbursed me for my expenses during my recovery. The system here hugs you in principle and wants to help, but professionally it’s not even close to the situation in the U.S. The rehabilitation system here is not structured enough and there is a lack of understanding that athletes shouldn’t have to do it all on their own. The people who treated me here were positive and professional, but they lacked the experience and means. I don’t blame anyone, but I think we should learn from common practise elsewhere. Who knows how many Olympic champions we’ve lost here, who may have had minor injuries but were told to quit. Any athlete in my situation, but without the support I had, would have probably given up.”

Frenkel, 26, is slowly making her way back to the top, to the days when Israelis stopped her in the street, amazed that she could jump over their heads. “When I left the Bat Dor dance company at 19, people asked why I chose the high jump. I somehow knew that I could jump high, and something still tells me that things will work out. I just know I’m good at it. I was told that I was born with the talent for it, that I jump even when I run. At training camps I saw how seasoned jumpers looked at me in awe, and I realized that I could go high. I really want to be on that Olympic podium.”

What did you miss most when you were away?

“I missed the competitions and improving my achievements, but mainly being at the peak of my physical condition, where jumping 1.90 meters seems low. I just know that one day I’ll jump really high and put this period behind me. I miss representing the country. Before me, Israel was not represented in the women’s high jump event in the European or World championships. I’m happy that I put Israeli athletics on the map and I want to do it again.”

At 18,while starring in a dance troupe, she had no idea that she would be Israel’s champion high jumper within four years. When she was 21 and attending a Purim party, she didn’t realize that the person she laughed at when he tripped beside her would be her partner to this day. “You never know what the next thing in your life will be," she smiles. “Everyone said that injury time is a great opportunity to mature and to get to know one’s body, but I’d be fine without it. When I compete again and do what I live for, I’ll talk of it with excitement, like a little girl. In the past I didn’t know what to expect and what I’m capable of. Now I do know and I want it even more.”