by Avi Shmoul
Windsurfer Gal Fridman, the first athlete to bring Israel an Olympic gold medal, lives in a small studio apartment in Kibbutz Sdot Yam. Fridman still answers his own telephone calls, despite the media representatives, family members, friends and other Israelis who flooded him with phone calls after his victory. Though he has not altered his lifestyle since becoming Israel's all-time premier athlete, he is now considering moving to a larger apartment-but only out of his desire to set up a home with Michal Peled, his girlfriend for the past eight years.
The modest way Fridman has lived his life does not bother this man who has spent more time surfing the waves than he has at home. Getting to know him reveals a different image than that created by the media, which had difficulty being sympathetic toward him, even in the early stages of the Olympics in Athens. The bold headlines he earned in the past presented an athlete who had difficulties with his teammates, his coach, and who even quit a training camp following a disagreement.
Despite all these, Fridman probably would not have accomplished what he did without his uncompromising and professional nature. His behavior throughout his career displayed perseverance, iron discipline and tremendous desire to achieve the goals he set for himself. Away from the waves he is revealed as a quiet and introverted fellow whose daily agenda and life are directed toward just one purpose: The measured hours of training, the breaks, the rest periods, the nutrition, the sleep and the leisure are all focused on improving his skills in order to maximize his ability as a windsurfer.
Even so, Fridman explains, "I have a total separation between my training and my life. When I get off the surfboard, I don't take anything with me to interfere with the rest of the day. It's true that the training takes up a lot of my daily routine. I have to get up each morning at the right time, be organized and eat properly. After a training session I have to rest. There is a lot of self-discipline that does not allow me to wander around during a rest period, otherwise I would be tired going into the next training session."
Asked what his heart rate is, he replies, "Like other athletes-40 beats per minute at rest and up to 200 per minute during exertion"-reflecting the two extremes between which he runs his life.
The order of priorities he set for himself back in his early adolescence has turned him into someone who does not "mingle with the guys" and does not go to parties. His first meeting with surfing was when he was 2 years old, when his father, Uri, one of the first windsurfers in Israel, sat him on a surfboard. His Uncle Mati is also considered a veteran windsurfer and runs the yachting club at Sdot Yam, to which Fridman belongs. Father and uncle learned from Fridman's grandfather, Shlomo. Even his name, Gal, means "wave" in Hebrew, disclosing some of what fate had in store for him. At 6, Fridman practiced on the lawn, raising the sail by himself. A year later he began windsurfing and made it part of his daily routine. At 10 he was already beating the adults. Shortly before his 13th birthday, he competed in the adult races at the Maccabiah Games-the Jewish Olympics.
"In 1988 I represented Israel for the first time in an international competition," recalls Fridman. "We went to the race for the fun of it and not for the results."
At school his potential was recognized, but Fridman would not cooperate with the coaches, preferring to practice his windsurfing instead of joining his school's athletic team.
They say you didn't meet your sports teachers' expectations at school.
"I got a C on my report card when I had two second-place titles in world youth championships and one second place in adult championships. It's true that I was not the best athlete in their eyes. It was my decision. I couldn't be on the school's team, even though I am good at running, because I had to focus on what I am doing. It would have hurt my chances in competitions, and I preferred to invest all my efforts in one area," explains Fridman.
Did you pay a heavy price for that?
"I didn't pay any price. I feel I have missed nothing. I look at my contemporaries and see that I have had at least twice as many experiences as they have. If I went out with them at night to have fun, it would not have given me any gratification. I have a lot to tell my children and grandchildren. What does someone who just has fun all the time have to tell? 'I sat in the pub until 3 a.m. and got drunk every day?' At my age, I have accomplished far more than they have, seen interesting cultures and had amazing experiences, even though traveling is not the most fun. This sport has given me a lot in return. The investment pays off and not only in the successes. Anyone who competes in sports acquires tools to succeed in the future, things like self-confidence. Sports is an excellent educator."
Do you have any hobbies?
"Mountain biking and road cycling," reveals Fridman.
I heard you're an Internet buff.
"It's not a hobby for me, but rather, a convenient way to communicate with friends or with the coach."
Fridman has even raised his cycling hobby to a professional level. "Biking terrain is the opposite of the sea-earth, mountains, rocks, everything the sea doesn't have," says Fridman.
But riding in cycling competitions went against the grain of the Israeli Yachting Association, which forbade him from competing in the Israeli 2002 championships. The following year Fridman "forgot" to inform the association and won a bronze medal in the Israeli cycling championships.
You give the impression that team discipline is not one of your strong suits. You refused, for example, to train with the Israeli team in preparation for the Athens Olympics.
"Anyone training for the Olympics does not have to do so with a group for everyone's benefit. I wanted personal attention for the things that I had to improve. I don't have to apologize for that," insists Fridman.
Fridman's stubborn streak resulted in disputes with Gur Steinberg, his personal trainer for the past 10 years. Steinberg, a former naval commando officer, works for Motorola Semiconductor and took extended leave without pay to train Fridman, coaching him to win a bronze medal at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. In 1999, Fridman went to train and compete in the world windsurfing championships in Argentina, which determined who would represent Israel in the Sydney 2000 Olympics. He arrived at that competition after a long cooling-off period following a bout of mononucleosis and, as a result, lost to his Israeli rival, Amit Inbar. Steinberg says this rivalry was one of the best things that happened to Fridman, as it pushed him to strengthen himself and to greater accomplishments. But when Fridman announced he was taking a break for a year and focusing on cycling races, Steinberg went back to coaching the Israeli windsurfing team in preparation for the Athens Olympics. Soon, however, there was friction between himself and Fridman-something to do with Lee Korzits, the leading woman on Israel's windsurfing team. Korzits is now Fridman's brother Yuval's girlfriend.
"The conflict with Gur was at the training camps," recalls Fridman. "He wanted to control everything. At that time, I was also being coached by personal trainer Mike Gebhard of Florida, who had begun working with me toward the Thailand 2002 world championships. The tension regarding Lee stemmed from the fact that we both compete differently and have different needs. In windsurfing one does not need to train with a team. Before Gur coached Lee, by the way, I personally trained her, bringing her from the youth to the adult level, and to championship level. When Gur returned to the team, she still relied on me more than on him. When she listened to me, it offended him. It was clear, however, that there was no option. There is one coach and he is the authority."
Where did Gebhard fit in?
"Gebhard is one of the most esteemed and sought-after trainers in the world. He gave me advice via the Internet and helped me a lot at two training camps this year, mainly with the little things, the things that make the difference between the first, second and third places. He has competed in two Olympic games and won silver and bronze medals. His experience helped me to believe in myself-that I could win. He helped me with the "fine tuning" that put me with the top five and the top three. He also helped me in technical matters, such as equipment, and supported me and my abilities. It wasn't just words. He didn't just tell me, 'Think first and you'll be first,' he helped me to believe in myself. He taught me to be confident, think correctly and erase any fears or anxieties about continuing on."
Gebhard, who was interviewed prior to the Athens Olympics, said, "I changed his name during training from Gal to WC-World Champion. Now I'm going to call him OM-Olympic Medal. He can really do it."
World Jewry has raised many great athletes, such as swimmer Mark Spitz, but Israel, unlike any other country on the same cultural, economic and educational level (including the Arab countries), has been unsuccessful at winning Olympic gold-until now. This is partially due to the practically nonexistent government support of sports and the sports culture, which for years has focused on combat physical fitness. Fridman, who is the only Israeli athlete to win two Olympic medals, has also not enjoyed much support from the Israeli sports authorities, to put it mildly, even though his career before Athens was studded with achievements all along the way, including second place in the world championships at age 12, an Olympic bronze medal and two world championship titles. When Fridman wanted Gebhard to train him for Athens, he was denied by the Yachting Association, partly because Gebhard charged 300 euros per day of training.
Steinberg tried to explain. "In Israel they treated us at first like new arrivals who lacked the proper equipment. A state has to build infrastructure and assist the development of a coach like me. What amazed me, even at the Yachting Association, is the fact that even Association chairman Yehuda Maayan told me after Atlanta that I should now take care of myself and not rely only on windsurfing. The system should have nurtured excelling athletes and helped them move forward."
Steinberg even appealed to Education Minister Limor Livnat, who was present at the Athens Olympics, telling her, "In a country like the United States there are sponsors, and there are countries like France, where the coaches work at schools, create sports and reap the medals. The Education Ministry cannot just come here to celebrate Olympic wins. I'm saying this even though I appreciate that you have come here. Supporting Olympic caliber athletes is not enough," added Steinberg. "An infrastructure of coaches must be built, just as teaching staff is built."
"You're bursting through an open door," replied Livnat. "Tell me, instead of standing here jabbering at each other, wouldn't it be better to simply celebrate? When are you going to get excited? You did a great job!"
"I already did a somersault in the water," said Steinberg.
Fridman, aware of his historic mission, requested to dedicate his medal to the 11 Israeli athletes murdered at the 1972 Munich Olympics. "I am sure their families are very happy with my achievement," he said after his win. "The moment I arrive in Israel, I will go to the memorial site and present them with the medal. I represent the Jewish people and that is the main thing. My medal also belongs to the athletes who were not so successful."
Did it trouble you that a whole country sees you as a symbol?
"Ten days before the race, I felt the stress of the whole country wanting the gold. I was already in a good position and expectations rose, mainly toward the final race. My friends told me that in the cafés, the malls and everywhere in Israel the televisions were tuned to the Olympics, everyone wanting to see the race live. They told me that everyone was watching. I knew that this was Israel and this was what history wanted. I managed to channel all my energies and got positive results," explains Fridman.
Where do you feel your contribution to society lies?
"Three months before the Olympics, my yachting club announced its closure due to lack of funds for paying trainers and for purchasing and maintaining equipment. Unlike judo, in which all you need is a uniform, here you have to pay $2,500 just for the board and sail. For an 11-year-old boy, the club is a substitute for the expensive equipment. One also has to remember that this is not a sport for the wealthy. Everyone who came here grew out of the clubs. I don't know anyone in yachting who is rich. We all came from average income families and anyone who wants to go on has to depend on the clubs. I hope that my win will contribute to the strengthening of the club and of windsurfing.
"I was also pleased to see that we starred in the leading newspapers in Canada, the U.S., Europe and the Far East. We showed a positive side of the State of Israel and that is worth more than a thousand ambassadors. Jews around the world felt proud. Everywhere I see children who are excited to see me and are now more interested in sports.
"Today, I am constantly receiving phone calls from people wishing to congratulate me. One father phoned and told me that his daughter was killed in a terror attack last year. My win was the first happy event for him since then. He cried tears of happiness for the first time. It's good for the whole country and made people feel good."
Source: Lifestyles Magazine