Israel's First-ever Olympic Champion Talks About Her Journey to the Top

Yael Arad discusses keeping her eye on the prize despite multiple obstacles that forced her to set off alone, hone her skills abroad and overcome the demons in her head.

Judoka Yael Arad, the first Israeli to win an Olympic medal,in 2004.
Oren Ziv

“One day, at age 16, I decided I wanted to be the best in the world and started living my life accordingly. You don’t go down the street shouting, ‘I want to be the world champion!’ Instead, you talk to yourself and your close circle of friends about it. You direct your life in such a way as to be able to say, ‘I’m going to do this even though no one here has ever done it before, and only a few can do it at all.”

This is how Yael Arad describes the moment in 1983 when her long and arduous journey toward becoming the first-ever Israeli to win an Olympic medal began. Years later, when she entered the world of business, she realized she had actually been a young entrepreneur all along.

“I had a crazy drive and the required skills: I was diligent and unwilling to compromise on anything,” she recalls. “All the obstacles along the way were mere props to me. I only wanted to climb upward.”

It happened at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona – 40 years after Israel started participating in the Olympics and just nine years after Arad decided that her goal was to reach the pinnacle of world judo: It was there that she won Israel’s first-ever medal, a silver (in the under-61 kilogram category).

Now Arad says one of the hardest things for her was recognizing just how long the process of reaching the top would be.

Arad: “You embark on a path of total commitment, and over time understand that you need a lot of patience and you’re on a roller-coaster ride. Just like in research or at a startup company, at some points there are breakthroughs, while on other days things don’t work out the way you thought they would. Acquiring the strength to contend with this roller coaster is something one learns the hard way, throughout the process.”

After standing out in comparison to her rivals, the young judoka realized that her dream to reach the top couldn’t be realized in Israel – a country devoid of sporting achievements and lacking the appropriate standards of professionalism.

“I quickly realized that if I wanted to succeed, I’d have to train abroad,” says Arad, recounting the drastic steps no one on her team imagined her taking.

Judoka Yael Arad, the first Israeli to get an Olympic medal, in 1994.
Miki Kratsman

Her mother’s cousin owned a few apartments in Paris, and he gave the 18-year-old Arad the keys to one of them. Occasionally, she’d fly there alone for a month at a time. Every day, she’d take the train to training sessions. Very few people around her spoke English. And as Facebook or Skype were yet to be invented, communication with her family back home was limited. Her globe-trotting trips began as soon as Arad finished her service in the Israel Defense Forces, continuing up to till the end of her sports career.

Initially, most of her trips were financed by her parents, or by means of teaching judo or waiting tables, which she did along with her training. The rest was covered by the Israel Judo Association.

Her climb to the top "began when I traveled overseas with the national judo team. These were always followed by training camps. I slowly developed contacts, and people invited me to live and train with them,” Arad relates.

“Before the army, I was staying at a London apartment with British world champions who trained eight hours a day. I also flew to France and Germany. I decided that my role models were athletes overseas, and that I needed to do everything they were doing – travel around the world a lot, train, eat and sleep with them. All those experiences shape you and make you want to attain your goals even more powerfully since you realize how much you’ve suffered along the way. If it doesn’t break you, it builds you.”

At the age of 20 Arad met Peter Seisenbacher, the Olympic champion in 1984 and 1988. He took her under his wing, and announced to Israel’s judo community that in order for her to really make it, Arad must train in Japan.

“I’d call him from time to time and consult with him,” she remembers. “He told me things that set me straight. Like a kid from a poor neighborhood who tells himself that one day he’ll go to a fancy restaurant – for me, the embodiment of success was an accomplishment in sport.

"I saw the Belgian judoka Ingrid Berghmans, the undefeated world champion. She had a red Nissan sports car that she’d been given by sponsors and she was at the center of things. I told myself I wanted to succeed on all levels – winning in judo but also becoming an admired person, financially successful. I wanted it all to come together.”

She emphasizes that even today there are very few Israeli athletes who can live the way she did overseas.

Arad: “I was a spoiled girl from an affluent Tel Aviv neighborhood. I picked up my bags and flew off. I managed on my own everywhere, I learned languages and many coaches took me on. Since I was on my own and Israel seemed so negligible, I wasn’t perceived as a threat to them. They saw a young woman traveling on her own, contending with all the difficulties, and this evoked their respect. I had a fixed itinerary of destinations and I only returned here for technical training and for some down-time. I was a child of the world.”

Emotional challenges

One of the most significant challenges a young athlete must contend with is the emotional one. “One can’t prepare for what lies ahead – you can’t tell a 16-year-old: ‘Beware of the tough times you’ll encounter.’ They can’t understand that. It’s very hard to tell someone who has just won a medal at the junior European championship games that one day they could sustain an injury or have an argument with their coach, and that things may not work out. One of my advantages was that I chose the people around me: I managed my team and was involved in the entire decision-making process.

"I was a happy athlete and when I felt pain or fatigue there was always someone I could talk to about it. From the age of 16 to 22, I did most of it on my own. The establishment then saw that I was an athlete with potential so they invested in me. I started traveling abroad with a trainer and an opponent to train against, and later I had a medical team as well.”

For five years Arad had no breakthroughs — a very frustrating period: “On one hand I trained and dreamed, but on the other hand there was no big breakthrough. I thought a lot and talked to my parents and people around me, here and abroad. The Olympics at that time were beyond my reach (women first participated in Olympic judo competitions at the Barcelona games in 1992).

"I only talked about the world championships. In 1989 I won a bronze medal at the European championships – an achievement considered exceptional in Israeli sports at the time. I was nearing the top and then an organization for achievement sports was set up here. I began to realize the significance of the Olympic Games.”

Arad says she doesn’t like people who complain about their trials and tribulations. “Very few people succeed in being the very best and many fall along the wayside,” she says. “Some will say they’ve suffered injuries and others will say they’ve been subjected to political discrimination or that they didn’t have sufficient funding. But we, the athletes who did succeed, also traveled that rough road. There were obstacles along my path and I can relate hair-raising stories about what I went through in a political context, but no one has heard that from me.

"The boldness consisted of setting a target that no one had set before. In the Israeli judo scene, no one thought it was possible and everything was done very amateurishly. Since I came from a country with no prior achievements, every decision I made was the first step in a process. I didn’t grow up in a system that had gone through trial and error while setting up methods. I would estimate that I did much more than was necessary and probably made mistakes, but there was no other way.”

No such thing as luck

If there is anything Arad doesn’t believe in, it’s the role of luck in success. “If you look at my career I did not benefit from luck at any point,” says Arad. “I was never lucky in drawing opponents, and in general I dismiss the term ‘luck’ in sport. People like using the term as an excuse or as a substitute for hard work. Sometimes things work out, but you can’t rely on it. I believe more in reducing the degree of uncertainty by investing in and attaining greater control over as many areas as possible.”

In 1989 Arad placed third in Europe and for almost four years she trained for the Barcelona Olympics. She reached the 1992 Games ranked No. 1 in the world. Israeli media covered her obsessively. For a whole year she couldn’t walk down the street by herself or answer her phone at home.

“The pressure I and [windsurfer] Amit Inbar were under, as Israel’s hopes for an Olympic medal, was inhuman,” she recalls now. “It was without precedent.”

Her brother Yuval flew to Barcelona with her to help deal with the Israeli media and to minimize the insanity as much as possible. A few days before the event, at her own initiative, Arad met Israeli media representatives who had come to Catalonia. She shared her feelings with them and asked them to give her the peace of mind she needed before her moment of truth arrived.

“Your internal drive is the determining factor, there is nothing stronger than that,” she declares. “It’s something very organic that grows inside you. You want to fulfill your dream and not lose it, and you’re constantly fighting the demons inside your head. Do you talk to yourself positively – ‘I have to win, how great it will be if I succeed’ – or do the demons of anxiety go into action and make you wonder, ‘if only I don’t lose’?

"It’s a balance between your dream of succeeding and being anxious about failure, a balance which sends you either in one direction or the other. If your thoughts are positive, you go there to win; if your anxiety takes over you’ll fail.”

What impact is there to the fact that Israel doesn’t have dozens of Olympic hopefuls, only a handful of prospective medallists?

“We’re not familiar with anything else. That’s how we’re raised and that’s what we’re used to. As an Israeli you know that if you succeed, you’ll be on top of the world, in contrast to dozens of Americans who win medals and no one has heard of them.”

At the Barcelona finals, Arad lost due to a questionable referee ruling, and had to make do with second place. The girl from northern Tel Aviv ascended the podium, bent down slightly so that the silver medal could be placed around her neck – the first Israeli Olympic medal in 40 years. To this day, Arad is the only woman athlete to have gone that far.

“The first thing you feel is a sense of satisfaction. I managed to do it. Later comes the awareness that now everyone will know you’re the best. Everyone wants to translate this into money, as well. The feeling is that now you’re in the major league. You’ll be photographed for ads, your face will be on cornflakes boxes and you’ll get a car, like Ingrid Berghmans'.

"You’ve started from such a low point and you’ve come such a long way. People didn’t always believe in you, and individual sports aren’t center stage here. It all boils down to wanting to prove to everyone that you’ve done it, you’re at the top, against all the odds.”