The Judoka That Carries the Hope of Israel

Alice Schlesinger will fight in the 63kg category at the Olympics next Tuesday. Ahead of the Games, Haaretz visited her grueling training camp in Spain and met the wannabe champion and her coach-life partner Pavel Musin.

You can live your entire life without visiting Castelldefels, or even being aware of its existence.

The sleepy resort town, about 20 kilometers from Barcelona, doesn't have much to offer tourists, except for a long strip of beach void of paddleball players. Maybe that's exactly what the tourists are looking for. In any case, for the wealthy of Catalonia it offers a little more. They arrive en masse, mainly during the summer months, to their two-story holiday homes with balconies facing the sea, the private swimming pools and the double-roofed parking spaces. The Miami of the Mediterranean. It's 30 degrees Celsius in the shade - and there is no shade.

Two local girls emerge from the sea. Wrapped in towels, they march in the direction of a mysterious structure standing on the beach, 50 meters from the waterline. From a distance it looks like a huge hangar.

The girls stride toward the wide-open door and when they peer inside, they are greeted by a strange sight. This improvised gym, with wall-to-wall mattresses on the floor, is crowded with about 100 women, barefoot and in battle dress, hitting one another. Dozens of men are crowded around the mass arena, also wearing battle dress, examining the female fighters carefully. Occasionally they toss out instructions and cries of encouragement in a host of languages. The two girls exchange astonished looks.

"What's this here," asks one of them. "I have no idea," replies the other. "It looks like judo. No, it's actually karate."

No, it's judo. Judokas came here from all over the world at the end of June for an intensive one-week training camp, a last instrument check before the Olympic Games. They came from Israel, too, as many as possible from both the men's and women's teams - accompanied by the professional staff, physical therapists and training partners. In a departure from the norm, this time they are also accompanied by another person, a stranger in their midst, an unfamiliar face, one who promised to observe them from the sidelines for a week without interfering - like a fly on the mattress. On the whole, he kept his promise.

I'm here for Alice Schlesinger. Well, to write about Alice Schlesinger. True, I don't know much about judo, but that's not the point. After all, the story is not judo; the story is Alice - the woman who, wherever she goes, carries around the daunting title "Israel's Olympic hope."

And we're not talking in a metaphorical sense. The title really does go everywhere with her. On her backpack, which is tossed under a bench in the training hall, there is a dedication embroidered in white thread: "To Alice Schlesinger, in hope for the London 2012 Olympics. Samurai-do Judo Club."

One thing is crystal clear from the start. Alice's sports story comes in the same package as her personal story. That's how it is when your life partner is also your personal trainer.

Alice is 24 and Pavel Musin is 37. Nine years ago, as a 10th grader, she was a member of the cadet team under his tutelage in Rishon Letzion. "He was simply there," she says. Five years later the two turned their professional relationship into an intimate one, and, as far as they're concerned, there was nothing more natural and inevitable.

They've been together for four years. Four years featuring numerous flights abroad, hundreds of cumulative hours of flying together between continents, thousands of hours on the judo mattress. And all that even before they return home together after a day's work. Before I landed at the camp, Pavel sent me the schedules for the week. Two training sessions every day - one in the morning and one in the evening. Every morning, every evening. Day trips to Barcelona are out of the question. We didn't come here to go shopping in La Rambla. We're here in order to win a medal.

A "training session" means a gathering of dozens of judokas in the gymnasium, which is the size of two adjacent basketball courts. The mattresses, as mentioned, are wall to wall. At any given moment the mattress is loaded with many kilograms of potential gold, silver and bronze, as the leading judokas in all weight categories are fighting here shoulder to shoulder.

Every training session is composed of a series of simultaneous five-minute matches that end with a traditional bow, a handshake, a short rest and then another match. Like mass speed dating, the judokas proceed from one rival to the second, and from the second to the third, without sentiments toward anyone but themselves. To the untrained eye - like that of the two local girls who peered inside - the choice of the next rival seems totally random. For the trained eye, like that of physical therapist Ofer Ben-Zvi, who is seated next to me on the side of the mattress and serving as my commentator, the choice of the rival for the next five minutes is complicated. Now Alice is fighting a right-handed judoka, in order to strengthen her right side; soon she'll proceed to another, heavier rival, in order to work on floor exercises.

Things to perfect

When I interview Alice, we find a table in the corner so we won't be disturbed.

Where's Pavel, isn't he joining us?

Schlesinger: "No, he decided not to come this time."

Why?

"We had a quite a difficult training session. We're both a little tense. It's a month before the Olympic Games, so each of us deals with it differently. I myself don't feel too well now, because I was ill recently and yesterday I completed the last day of antibiotics. In short, I'm not at my best today, but that's how it is. It's all right."

This will be your second Olympic Games. In what ways do you feel different a month before London from how you felt a month before Beijing?

"Now the expectations are much higher. In Beijing I was a young athlete, they always told me that it was only the beginning - although when I arrived there I got onto the mattress in order to win, and not for any other purpose. Now the pressure is much greater, the expectations are much higher. The preparations are much more difficult now, because there's less judo to learn, and there are more things to perfect. To improve from 50 to 90 is much easier than to improve from 90 to 100. And now we're on the final stretch. That's what makes the last month so difficult."

Some of the girls you will be fighting in London are now training alongside you on the same mattress. Do you ever sit with them outside the gym? Have coffee? A short conversation in the hotel lobby?

"I try not to. It's very hard for me to make that distinction, because if I'm a friend, then I'm a friend all the way. I can't be on good terms with someone and a second later come to blows with her."

Aside from Pavel, who else do you share your feelings with?

"There's Michal, my psychologist, who's a sports psychologist. There's Amit Ivri, the swimmer, who will also be participating in the Olympic Games [as Israel's only female swimmer]. Listen, it's very hard to share such things with girlfriends who are not involved in sports, because no matter how much I want to explain my feelings to them, it's impossible. If you don't experience it yourself, it's impossible. I even talk about it sometimes with my parents. Although it's hard for me to explain to them what I'm feeling, I try very hard to be patient with them."

Sports are not something foreign to your parents. Your mother is a former soccer player, the entire family is into sports.

"In the family I come from, we didn't have the option of not engaging in sports. We had to find a specific sport for ourselves. I started with floor gymnastics. From there I went on to swimming. But the moment I discovered judo, I knew that was it. During the first training session they taught me some exercise, and afterward I practiced during the entire summer vacation on my sisters, my brother, my father. Anyone who moved near me."

During the most recent training matches I noticed the expression on your face. For a moment I thought you were playing chess. Can you explain what you're thinking during a match?

"Judo is a game of who can psych out whom. For five whole minutes your mind keeps on working, it doesn't stop for a moment. Really, not for a moment. It's nonstop. You think 20 moves ahead and 20 moves back. You have to know precisely the right timing, the right movement, the angle. Pavel always says that what you have to do during a match is to score a goal between the goalkeeper's legs. That's the greatest thing that can happen to you. That's actually an ippon."

Are you going to London in order to win a medal or only to win the gold?

"It's hard for me to answer, because I want the gold. I know that. Of course being the best is more fun than being third. The fact is that even in competitions where I took first place, I rarely thought about it. I mean that on the day of the competition, I go with the flow. I won the first match? Okay, that's one I've put behind me. Now let's concentrate on the next one. Only when you reach the later stages, the semifinals for example, then you can think: If I've come this far, I don't intend to lose. I'll give my all.

"At the beginning of the day [in competition] it's very hard to do that. It's five matches; a long, exhausting day. You get up at 6 A.M. and know that it won't end until 8 P.M. So if in the morning I'm already thinking about the end of the day, that's mentally very exhausting. Now, only thinking about those 12 hours makes me tired. If, let's say, I were a pilot, it would be like, even before takeoff, already starting to think about how to land the plane. It's exactly the same thing."

On the right track

The men and women train alternately. It's the same gymnasium, the same mattresses, the same Israeli team bench. The last minutes of the women's session overlap the arrival of the men, who march around the mattress in order to sit on the team's bench. You have to put on your judogi uniform. Arik Ze'evi arrives, followed by Soso Palelashvili, and with them Oren Smadja, the men's coach. Meeting Smadja in Barcelona is like meeting Tal Brody in Virton (the site of Maccabi Tel Aviv's legendary victory over CSKA Moscow in 1977).

Almost exactly 20 years ago, the boy from Ofakim arrived here and returned home with a medal after putting Israel on the map - together with fellow judoka Yael Arad - and putting the map on the mattress. I take advantage of the minutes when Smadja is getting organized for the men's training session and grab him for a short conversation.

Before I could say "Alice Schlesinger" he blurted out, without thinking, "If I examine Israel's entire Olympic delegation, then Alice is the best [bet], along with Arik Ze'evi. No question. There's a reason they sent you here for her, right? That's all. She won't talk about it like me, that's natural. But as a judo coach and as a member of the team, I'm telling you straight: Alice is a huge candidate for a medal. Period. Overall, judo in Israel is definitely on the right track. We returned from the European Championships with four medals, which is an unprecedented achievement. And a new generation of athletes has grown up here, which is benefiting from a tailwind and has resumed dreaming the way we once did."

Let's get back to Alice for a moment. What advice do you have for her?

Albert Gea