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Israelis on ice by: Yaniv Halili, Ynetnews

Ice skating
Ice skating

Barring any last-minute surprises, Galit Hayit and Sergei Sachanowski will take to the ice Saturday night as the favorites to become Israel's first skating medalists at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino, Italy.

If they manage to take the gold, the band will strike up the Israeli national anthem, Hatikva. But don't expect them to sing along they  don't speak Hebrew, don't live in Israel and train in an ultra modern skating complex in New Jersey.

Hayit, 31, the daughter of an American mother and Israeli father, was born in Israel and was nine months old when her family immigrated to the US. Her father, Boris, set up an electronics factory in New York and they have lived the American dream ever since.

Hayit had a typical American upbringing, catching the skating bug at the age of 8 years old and eventually decided to turn pro.

12 years ago she met Sachanowski, also 31, at Israel's only skating rink, the Canada Center in Metulla, on Israel's northern border. He had recently arrived from Moscow bringing with him the title of Russian youth skating champion.

She was visiting Israel and Sachanowski, whose father is Jewish, said he wanted to check the potential of furthering his career in Israel. Five months in the country was enough for him to obtain a passport and a ticket to the US where he and Hayit are trying to realize the Olympic dream.

Boris Hayit was glad when the couple said they would represent Israel. He serves as president of the Israeli Ice Skaters Association. The couple trains twice a year at the Wingate Institute in Israel but the rest of the time they are based in the US.

They also fail to understand why they should have to reside in Israel order to skate for the country.

"The entire Russia team, for example, practices in the US," notes Hayit. "We practice here because the best coaches are here. But that does not make us less Israeli. If we practiced in Israel we would never have made it this far.

"I think of myself as Israeli. Living in the country would not make me more patriotic. People in Israel fight in the army. Sergei and I are fighting in a different way, for a different purpose: a medal"

They may not spend a lot of time in the country but they sure know how to complain like Israelis especially when it comes to what they believe is regarding what they is inadequate financial backing from the country they represent.

"This is not an easy business," Hayit said. "Israel gives us little but expects a lot. Everyone expects us to win a medal and that puts us under great pressure."

Boris Hayit said that the couple receives funding from the national sports lottery, the education ministry and the Israeli Olympic Committee. However, their contributions barely cover one-third of the couple's budget.

"Israeli companies don't sponsor or provide equipment because ice skating is not a big sport in the country. So I have to provide the missing funds from my own pocket. What do I get in return? A big headache."

However, Hayit knows that if the couple leaves Torino with a medal, it will mean a lot of money in future sponsorships and deals. They will be entitled to grants from the Israeli Olympic Committee and will also be eligible for sponsorships. There is also a discussion about opening Israel's first ice skating school.

In the US, an Olympic medal is worth a lot of money. In the country of never ending opportunity, people pay a lot of money to enjoy ice skating performances as entertainment as well as competitive sport.

"Right now, we cannot think past the Olympics," said Hayit. "Our entire focus is on the competition.

This is the couple's third Olympic appearance but the first in which they are eligible for a medal.

"They have a good chance at the bronze, maybe even silver," says their coach Yevgeny Paltov, "They have a unique style and are in top physical condition."

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