The Jujitsu Kid From Israel

Nadav Mandil, 16, wasn't a sports fan until he discovered his talent for the martial art of jujitsu. Buoyed by success at European championships, he’s now aiming for the very top.

Ofer Vaknin

On the bookshelves of Nadav Mandil’s bedroom are 19 medals, one trophy and four pyramids of Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream tubs. At 16, the Israeli high-school student from Ra’anana has two loves in life: dessert and jujitsu.

While trying every flavor of his favorite confectionery may be what he does for fun, when Mandil gets serious it’s on the jujitsu mat. There, he has just one goal in mind: becoming a world champion.

He’s on the right path. Last month, Mandil won the European Championships in the under-60kg male-aspirants category. It was his third international competition and the second at which he’d come first.

Mandil started taking jujitsu classes three years ago, when a school friend invited him along to a trial class. He’d dabbled in judo, soccer and volleyball before, but never felt passionate about any sport.

“At the start it was really fun,” Mandil told Haaretz. “Then I started competing and saw that I was successful – and enjoyed it – so I decided to invest all my energy into it.”

Jujitsu is a martial art and combat sport that consists mainly of grappling and fighting on the ground. Combatants use various techniques – including joint locks and chokeholds – to defeat their opponent, adapting each one to their build, strength and preferences so as to execute them efficiently.

While, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics, it is a less popular martial art in Israel than judo or tae kwon do, the country’s jujitsu juniors and aspirants appear to be doing well internationally. Its delegation to the recent European Championships in Sweden won the title of Most Efficient Team.

Determined to make a career out of the sport, Mandil has worked odd jobs to finance his flights to overseas competitions: Walking dogs, cleaning the sports center where he trains, and distributing flyers over the school summer break. He also volunteers as an assistant coach and judge at local competitions – “just for fun,” he notes.

“My parents aren’t millionaires,” says Mandil. “Of course they help me, but … I don’t want to ask them to pay for me all the time. It’s important to earn your own money.”

Nadav Mandil on the mat. Photo by Ofer Vaknin

Nadav’s mother, Dorit Rishoni-Mandil, an artist, has taken on the unofficial role of being his PR representative, determined to find him a sponsor. Her brother, Shay Rishoni, was once a well-known sportsman in Israel. A triathlete and Iron Man competitor, Rishoni fell ill with motor neurone disease, leaving him paralyzed and on a ventilator. Since then, he has devoted his life to finding a cure for the disease, comanaging the organization Prize4Life Israel.

Nadav’s father, Eyal, a computer technician, also supports his son’s sporting ambitions. “He’s with me at every competition,” says Mandil, “even if it means driving me for an hour just to attend a training session.”

In November 2013, Mandil broke his leg during the last round of a competition. “I heard a pop, but because of the adrenaline I didn’t feel anything,” he recalls. “My opponent immediately understood what had happened. He panicked and started screaming, and I thought he was the one that had been wounded. I asked him, ‘What happened?’ Then he showed me my foot and it was crooked.”

Nadav Mandil in training. Photo by Ofer Vaknin

Mandil underwent surgery and was left in a plaster from foot to thigh. After a month, the doctors lowered the cast and within two weeks he was back in training, knee-high in plaster. “I went back with more determination than before, because I really wanted to get back into it,” he says. The rest of the cast was removed in January, and Mandil powered through a rehabilitation program.

Taking the time out did him good, he believes. “I felt stronger [when I returned]. The bone was stronger, too.” By April, he was in Rome competing at the European Jujitsu NO GI Open and came first in his category.

While training nine times a week, Mandil attends school on a full-time basis, studying for his high-school diploma (“bagrut”). “It’s always good to have a Plan B,” he says, adding that he sees education as a basic requirement for everyone his age.

“He also cooks for himself,” says his mother proudly. While he doesn’t have a set training diet, he tries to eat healthy foods. Except for some quality ice cream now and again.

Ofer Vaknin