A deeper story to Israeli ice dancer's dream

Updated: February 20, 2006, 11:42 PM ET
By Eric Adelson | ESPN The Magazine

TORINO, Italy -- Then there was the other ice dancer who left her native country to skate in America. Except this one did not skate for America. This one competed under a different flag. A flag she carried at the Salt Lake Opening Ceremony and again this month, here.

Israel has only five Olympians in Torino. Four are ice dancers. They all live in New Jersey, where they train, together. They all honed their skills in Israel, in the small town of Metulla, right on the war-torn Lebanese border. Metulla is the home of Israel's only ice rink.

But Galit Chait did not begin her skating life in Israel. She began it in New York City, at Rockefeller Center, a little 8-year-old Jewish girl lacing up under a big Christmas tree.

Galit Chait and Sergei Sakhnovski
AP Photo/Mark BakerGalit Chait and Sergei Sakhnovski of Israel finished eighth in the ice dancing competition Monday night.
"I went with my cousin," Chait says. "He was scared. I wasn't."

Nor was she scared to dream of the Olympics, even on that first day back in the winter of 1983. She practiced figure skating at Sky Rink in Manhattan, then went to Russia in the '90s and found ice dancing and a Russian-born partner, Sergei Sakhnovski. The two began training every day for 8½ months out of the year. At that point, Israel had never had a Winter Olympian.

Michael Shmerkin changed that when he placed 16th as a figure skater in 1994. That same year, Chait became the first Israeli ice dancer to compete in the World Championships. Four years later, she became the nation's second Winter Olympian. Chait and Sakhnovski placed 14th in Nagano. In 2002, the same year she became the first Israeli woman to medal at the World Figure Skating Championships, Chait was asked to carry the Israeli flag in Salt Lake City. And this February, at age 31, she was asked again, becoming one of the few Olympians in history to carry her nation's flag in two Opening Ceremonies.

"It was an unbelievable feeling," Chait says. "My knees were shaking."

She has not become the first Israeli to win a Winter Games medal. She and Sakhnovski finished eighth Monday night after a freak fall in the compulsories. But as with most things Israeli, and most things Jewish, the past tells a deeper story than the present.

Every Israeli Winter Olympian is of Russian ancestry. (The lone non-skater, skier Michael Renzin, was born in Latvia and raised in Ukraine.) All have nightmarish tales of anti-Semitism they either keep to themselves or discuss in quiet tones. The Soviets considered Judaism a nationality and forbade Shmerkin from representing Russia in the Olympics. His mother divorced his father and married a Russian so her son could compete.

The fall of communism seems to us like a moment from a faraway era. But not to these athletes who must smile constantly -- even when they don't feel all that happy.

The brother and sister duo of Alexandra and Roman Zaretsky, 18 and 22, tell of swastikas painted on their parents' front door.

"We took the first opportunity to run from the Soviet Union," Roman says. "It was really hard. Being Jewish was the lowest form of human. I don't feel I belong there. And I don't want to go back."

Chait's father, Boris, is the head of the Israeli Skating Federation. He was born in Russia in 1950 and left in 1975, when his daughter was 1.

"Nothing in life is more permanent," he likes to say, "than temporary."

And so when Galit complains -- about anything -- her father always tells her: "You are history. There are very few people in the world who can say this."

Monday night, Galit and her partner ended a part of their history. They danced in the Olympics for what will likely be the last time. They danced to Bolero. They danced energetically, emphatically and nearly perfectly.

"I'm a little sad," Galit said afterward, her eyes glistening to match the jewels on her dress.

She will return to New Jersey, maybe to teach, maybe to raise a family, maybe both. She still wants that first medal, wants to hold it in her hand.

But she will not own it. And that doesn't sit well with her. Not right now.

"We still have something to prove," she said. "We're fighters. We never say never."

Then she hurried off, unsure of the future, proud of the past, and hopeful that a little bit of history still awaits.

Eric Adelson writes for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at eric.adelson@espn3.com.

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Eric Adelson was a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.