Amidst the ongoing rocket fire and IDF operation in Gaza, the Israel national swimming championships began at the Wingate Institute on Tuesday.

The first day of the event included only two finals (the women’s 1,500m freestyle and men’s 800m free), with the championships to get into full swing from Wednesday until the final day of action on Saturday.

Protective areas have been prepared for the hundreds of swimmers and spectators, an unavoidable measure considering the current security situation.

The preparations of many of the swimmers, especially from the south of the country, have been disrupted in recent weeks, including Olympian Yakov Toumarkin.

The 22-year-old, who ended the 200- meter final at the London Games in seventh place, the highest-ever finish for an Israeli swimmer at the Olympics, has not been able to train near his home in Ashdod, with his local pool being closed due to the continuous rocket barrage towards the city.

Toumarkin and most of Israel’s top swimmers train at Wingate for much of the year in the best of times, although many of them have not had any other option in recent weeks.

Guy Barnea is also among those who call the Wingate pool home and he admitted that it hasn’t been easy to focus on swimming since the start of Operation Protective Edge.

“My parents live in Omer, outside Beersheba, and I grew up in Omer,” he said. “I’m there on weekends, so I experience the reality in the south.

“I personally feel that I must be up-to-date all the time. I watch a lot of news and check the updates. I’m really affected by every injured soldier.

To put all of that aside and focus on competing isn’t the most normal situation, but it is something which all Israelis have to cope with.”

Barnea does, however, believe that it is possible to focus on the task on hand.

“The most important thing is that the soldiers return home safely and do what they went in to do,” he added.

“We are just doing our part in the pool, trying to represent Israel with as much honor as possible and raise our flag on the podium as much as possible.

“You can detach yourself,” he insisted.

“That is something we work on our entire careers. As soon as I arrive at the blocks I focus on the execution of the race. However, apart from those few seconds in the pool, you continually carry with you everything that is going on around us and ultimately it does take its toll.

“The trick is to use the situation to your advantage. In these kinds of times, I get more emotional by wearing the Israel cap and it means more to reach a final as an Israeli swimmer.”

Toumarkin also admitted it is impossible to continue as usual.

“We had a competition last week and we couldn’t focus because we kept checking what is happening in Israel,” he said. “It really is an unpleasant situation.”

For Israel’s top swimmers, the national championships will be the final warm-up event ahead of next month’s European Championships, which begin in Berlin on August 13.

“We are still undergoing intense training in preparation for the European Championships so we are not expecting personal bests or anything like that [at the national championships],” said Toumarkin, who won bronze medals in the 100m and 200m backstroke at the previous continental championships two years ago.

“It will be very difficult to win two medals again because last time the competition was slightly easier and this year all the top swimmers will be taking part. My initial target is to set personal bests and I believe that if I do so I will be able to finish quite high up.”

One of the highlights at Wingate will be the men’s 50m backstroke final on Thursday. Besides Barnea, who has won a bronze medal in the event in the past two European Championships, the final is set to also include Toumarkin and Jonatan Kopelev, who claimed the European gold medal two years ago.

“This event is a preparation for the European Championships, a chance to try everything out,” explained Barnea.

“Therefore, I am not in top form at the moment, but I am in good enough form to put up a fight and give the home crowd a good show.”

Barnea is hoping to once more claim a medal at the Europeans next month, but he knows it is far from a given.

“In the 50m back everything is decided by a few hundredths of a second, so the execution has to be perfect and a lot of the time you also need a bit of luck,” he said. “I’m not assuming I will win a medal again just because I did so in the past two championships. I really need to be at my very best.”

The upcoming Europeans are effectively the beginning of the road to the Rio 2016 Olympics. The swimmers can set in Berlin the criteria for next year’s World Championships in which they will have an opportunity to book their place in Rio.

“The Worlds will be our first chance, and probably our best chance, to set the Olympic criteria,” said Barnea.

With so many distractions, it would hardly be surprising should Israel’s swimmers struggle this week. However, they are not looking for excuses as they prepare to represent Israel in honor on the international stage, while always having one eye on home.

allon@jpost.com

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