At World Alpine Championship, the Hills Are Alive With Israeli Skiers

Austria's Schladming resort represents the latest step in the women's long-shot attempt to make next year's Winter Olympics in Sochi.

On the morning of February 13, the snow at Austria's Schladming ski resort was colder than usual. The final preparations for the World Alpine Skiing Championships were over and the slopes were ready for the first test run.

As expected, the Austrians were the best of the bunch, but the French, Germans, Italians and Russians had sent large contingents, too. Amid the colors, three women were wearing the Israeli blue and white.

“Nobody’s surprised to see us at international competitions anymore,” says 22-year-old Yom Hirshfeld. “Even though people in Israel don’t know it, Israel has been sending skiers to international competitions for six years now."

Along with Hirshfeld, who has been dividing her time between Europe's slopes and Moshava Kinneret in the north, Israel has been represented by Gitit Buchler and Ronnie Kiek, both of Tel Aviv. For them, the championships in Austria were another step on the way to next year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

“We have a chance,” Hirshfeld says after finishing the championships in 72nd place – out of 150. “We’re now heading for a last month of competitions abroad that will determine what happens in the future.”

Avraham Last, the chairman of the Israel Ski Federation, agrees. “It’s realistic," he says. "Now we hope that the Israel Olympic Committee adopts the international criteria and that we’ll be able to send at least one skier to Sochi."

It could be said the Israeli women's ski team was created by three girls who started very young in a country where many people think sports means soccer. Except for a few months in the north and sometimes in Jerusalem, snow is a rare commodity.

Buchler, 20, discovered skiing when she was 2, when her father took her to the slopes during a vacation in France. Kiek learned the sport when she was 6, when her father took her to Mount Hermon in the north.

Today they train with their Macedonian coach in the French mountains. When they returned to Israel a few days ago from competitions in Serbia, many people at the airport asked them about the bold claim on the back of their jackets: "Israel Ski Team."

"People are very surprised that there is such a team," says Hirshfeld. She adds with a smile that she relates to the 1993 American comedy "Cool Runnings" about the Jamaican bobsled team at the Winter Olympics.

"We also have the constant feeling that we're battling against all odds," she says. "We all have double lives that are divided most of the year between Israel and abroad."

And the financial issue doesn't help. The steep expenses, at least 20,000 euros a year, fall on them and their parents. "It's enough for 120 days on the snow," says Last. "To be a professional skier you need to accumulate at least 300."

In another few days the team returns to Europe for the final battle on the road to Sochi. Even if they fail, Last is optimistic about the future.

"With around 40,000 to 50,000 skiers who go every year on ski vacations, we can develop excellent skiers," he says. "To be a skier you don't need to live in a snowy country. Britain and Holland, for example, do very well for themselves."

Hirshfeld also wants to see young skiers catching up with her and her friends. "I only hope there will be teams that continue what we're doing," she says. "That's how we started, and there's no reason it can't continue."

Reuters