The positive attitude of American-Israeli swimmer Eva Fabian is infectious. Maybe it’s her silver-framed sunglasses with blue lenses that make her see the world in a different light. Whatever, it’s hard to be in her presence, even briefly, and not see the world a little more brightly.
During the month of the World Aquatics Championships and Pride Month, she chats about how she fell in love with open-water swimming, moving to Israel in 2017, three “failed” attempts to qualify for the Olympics and a love that blossomed in Tel Aviv.
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Born in Maryland and raised in Keene, New Hampshire, the 28-year-old grew up surrounded by lakes, which naturally drew her to open-water swimming. She learned to swim when she was 5 or 6, because she wanted to be just like her older brother. “Basically, he was allowed to jump off the diving boards in the pool. I wanted to do it with him, so I had to learn how to swim,” she recounts. “So I learned how to swim in order to just have fun – and I ended up loving it.”
She quickly learned to love the competitive element as well. “I was always very dedicated to improving; it was just a world where I felt very at home,” she says. “I always felt it was a place where I was comfortable and could be myself.”
Fabian says she became very good at distance swimming in the pool when she was 11 or 12. “When I was 14, I did my first 10 kilometers in open water,” she recalls. “The only reason I did it is because my 14-year-old self didn’t think about kilometers and how that was six full miles.”
Her coach entered her into the competition and told her she had a talent for it and had already done that distance in practice. “I was really well prepared for it,” she says – yet it wasn’t quite love at first sight. “I swam it and hated it. It was the worst thing,” she recalls. “But I swam really well and qualified for the U.S. nationals.”
She gave it another chance and ended up enjoying it much more in the second race because she knew how to pace herself better. That paid off with a call-up to the U.S. national team, and she recognized that she had the necessary skills for the physically demanding sport.
By the time she was 15 she was swimming the 10K and 25K events in the world championships. “I didn’t realize it’s five to six hours in the ocean,” she smiles about the latter format. “I didn’t love the 25K, but I loved the experience and I’ve been committed to open-water swimming ever since.”
Connecting with nature
Around the time Fabian transitioned from chlorinated water to seawater, marathon swimming (10 kilometers) had just became an Olympic sport at Beijing in 2008. However, it seems it was only Matan Roditi’s fourth-place finish in the men’s marathon at Tokyo last year that brought open-water swimming to the attention of Israelis. “The program here has always had strong swimmers,” Fabian explains. “It’s been growing every year since I’ve been here.”
She thinks of the sport as “the original swimming,” because the first modern Olympics in 1896, in Athens, featured open swimming. “They didn’t swim in a pool. So I think it’s a return to the original allure of swimming, which is just kind of appreciating and getting to appreciate waters around the world and getting to connect with nature. Connecting sport and nature is always a very cool thing, which we have an opportunity to do.”
Fabian won gold in the (non-Olympic) 5K at the World Open Water Swimming Championships in 2010, but failed in her two attempts the following year to qualify for the London Olympics.
“It was tough to have that failure, but that’s kind of what sport is all about,” she reflects. “After that [Olympic] cycle, I got to go to university and I spent four awesome years swimming for Yale.”
While she studying at the Ivy League college, she also represented the United States at the 2013 World Championships in Spain, winning bronze in the 25K . “That was the craziest race of my life,” she recalls. “The 25K is sort of ultramarathon territory. It’s five to six hours. In open water, time doesn’t matter. All that matters is the order of finish, so the race could be 90 percent pretty chill and 10 percent fast, or it could be 80 percent fast – which is what that 25K [in Barcelona] ended up being.
“I had forgotten the first rule of open-water swimming, which is not to expect anything. I remember being surprised when after the 10K we went to finishing speed and for the next three hours we swam the fastest 15K I’d ever swam in my life! It was faster than the 10K speed from the previous days. It was the craziest thing. So that race will always stand out in my mind as being the wildest thing.”
Fabian won silver at the 2014 Pan Pacific Championships in the 10K, but didn’t qualify for the 2015 World Championships, thereby missing her potential ticket to the Rio Games the following year.
It was a tough but crucial learning experience, she says now. “What we need to remember in sport is that it’s not only about one competition. I got the opportunity to compete in so many high-level competitions. They were all so special and incredible. That year, I got the opportunity to compete in the Pan American Games, and I won gold in the 10K.”
Her positive mindset is encapsulated by a comment that you should never let failure cloud your perspective on what else you’ve achieved.
Her swimming career didn’t end with the 2016 Olympics. “I always knew that after university I wanted to move to Israel and swim for Israel,” she says, adding that she had first considered moving here in high school.
“There was a very small [Jewish] community in the town where I grew up,” she says, and “I didn’t really have Jewish friends before I came to college.” For her, Judaism at the time was more about “family, history and culture.”
Her path to Israel started coming into focus after meeting Israeli marathon swimmer Shahar Rasman on the swimming circuit in high school. “We became really good friends,” she says. Rasman ended up going to college in Keene. “That connection made it seem possible, and made me want to do it because I love training with him; we love competing together and we could compete for the same team.”
Fabian moved to Israel in 2017, a year after undergoing knee surgery, and started training again soon afterward. She also started to “love the rhythm of life here,” which helped her to decide to make aliyah that November.
She earned a master’s degree from the international security and diplomacy program at Tel Aviv University, having previously studied in the music program at Yale. For her, playing violin and swimming for four years was truly “living the dream.”
While studying at Tel Aviv, she was also training for the Tokyo Olympics (which were held a year late, last summer). The last place up for grabs was the continental spot for Europe, with the qualifier taking place in Portugal. “That was a tough race,” she recounts. “I think it was only my second race in a wet suit, and I think my inexperience with that affected me. … I learned a lot from that race. Sometimes it’s a shame to have a learning experience at such a crucial moment, but I’m really proud of my effort there.”
Finding love freestyle
Fabian is noncommittal about the 2024 Games in Paris. “I take things one step at a time,” she says. “Something I learned from London that really helped me over the next two stages of my career is that because I was so focused on London, I didn’t enjoy any of the leadup to it.”
So, she changed her mindset. “I decided that I would never take opportunities to compete for granted again,” she says. “My biggest regret from that time was not enjoying the races, because I loved it but had become so consumed by that goal that I wasn’t focusing on the things I loved.”
One thing Fabian didn’t perhaps expect to find in Israel was love. “Tinder is either the greatest or worst thing ever,” she smiles, explaining that she met her significant other – Zohar Tavori, who is captain of the Israeli women’s rugby team, on the dating app. “We didn’t meet through Wingate, shockingly, even though both of us were there a lot,” she says of the sports training and education institution in Netanyah, north of Tel Aviv. “A very big part of our relationship is just loving movement, athletics,” she adds.
Fabian feels very fortunate and supported, starting with her family back in the United States and continuing with Tel Aviv in general, and Tel Aviv University specifically. However, she believes that despite many influential figures in U.S. women’s sports leading the charge in attitudes toward LGBTQ people, it can still be difficult in sport.
“I had the luxury and freedom of getting to figure out who I was without feeling that I wouldn’t be accepted by my family,” she says. “Obviously, my experience in sport is very different than many other people’s; I don’t think I was always comfortable with that. Especially when I was growing up, you heard a lot of slurs in sport, and still I don’t think it’s anywhere near where it should be.”
Despite, or perhaps because of, having had such an accepting environment around her throughout her life, Fabian is convinced that her role as an athlete is to set an example. “Just being visible and being there for any other young athlete to see that, and to know that: ‘Yes, I have a place in sport, I have a place in this world, I belong there’ – that to me feels like I’ve done the right thing,” she observes.
The Ivy League was in the headlines recently after swimmer Lia Thomas, who studies at the University of Pennsylvania, became the first openly transgender athlete to win America’s top trophy in university sports. “It’s a shame some people have taken advantage of that to say they’re protecting women’s sport” by complaining about trans women competing, says Fabian, reeling off the many other things women’s sport really needs: equal funding, institutional support, exposure and greater opportunities relative to their male colleagues.
Preventing trans athletes from competing is a distortion of what women’s sport needs, she stresses. “We want trans athletes because we need women athletes in women’s sport. I want to compete alongside them. I want to support them. I want to be heard supporting them. I want the conversation to be less driven by just hatred and misinformation.”
She also points out that most of the people complaining haven’t actually asked women athletes what they want. “There are a lot of elite women athletes who support inclusion,” she says. “I think the conversation has been used to push people’s agendas rather than to look at women’s sports and listen to the athletes.”
Israelis will have an opportunity to see Fabian in action at the World Aquatics Championship in Budapest, which runs from Friday June 17 until July 3. “I’m super-excited,” she says. “I’m swimming the 5K and the 10K, so I get two chances to compete.”
The events will be held on June 27 and 29, giving Fabian a day’s rest to recover between events (a schedule for which she has been training). How does she do it? Well, it seems that positivity goes a very long way.