Vancouver 2010: Israeli ice dance team preps for Vancouver

Sibling duo Roman and Sasha Zaretsky train in New Jersey leading up to the Winter Games.

January 29, 2010 09:47
4 minute read.
ice skating 88

ice skating 88. (photo credit: )

The Norwegian Olympic team doesn’t have this problem. But for Israel’s world-class skiers and skaters – yes, there are a few – it remains an issue: Where do you practice when your country is largely covered by desert?

For Roman and Sasha Zaretsky, Israel’s top ice dancing team, the solution can be found – of all places – in New Jersey.

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“If we could practice in Israel, we would love to do that,” says Sasha, who has competed alongside her brother for a dozen years. “Our parents and best friends are still there. But for [facilities], it makes sense to be here.”

“Here,” for the last five years, has been the Ice House, a skating center in Hackensack where the pair are currently practicing twice daily, six days a week, in the lead-up to next month’s Vancouver Olympics. With four regulation rinks that are habitually resurfaced, the Ice House contains three rinks more than the entire state of Israel, far surpassing the facilities the country can offer its elite skaters.

For the Zaretskys, New Jersey has proven a good fit, if a temporary one, and a far cry from earlier periods in their lives, which began in Belarus in the final years of Soviet rule. Following the fall of the eastern bloc, the family immigrated, along with roughly a million other Soviet Jews, to Israel.

It was in the Middle East, paradoxically – and not in their frigid birthplace – that Roman and Sasha began skating, taking lessons at Israel’s sole ice rink in Metulla, their new hometown in the country’s north.

Located on the border with Lebanon, the city provided sufficient early training for the Zaretskys, who won their first national title as novices in 1999, when Sasha was 11 and Roman 15. After claiming two additional national titles as juniors, they continued to practice while Roman served for three years in the army – mandatory for most Israelis, but often postponed or canceled for the country’s top athletes.

“I didn’t want to avoid it like some others do,” says Roman, who served near home so he could continue to train.

BY THE time his army service was behind him, the pair had attained international standing, placing fourth at the world junior championships in 2005 and claiming medals at two other prestigious competitions that same year. But with their rankings on the rise, and with the 2006 Olympics approaching, the Zaretskys began to feel they had outgrown the Metulla ice rink, which is not maintained at the standards of elite facilities overseas.

Metulla’s proximity to the border could also be distracting – rockets have a tendency to fall on the city during periods of conflict.

Metulla’s ice rink indeed sustained damage during Israel’s 2006 war with Hizbullah, but by that time the Zaretskys were out of harm’s way in New Jersey, having competed months earlier – somewhat to their surprise – at that year’s Olympics in Turin, Italy.

“It was a little bit shocking,” Sasha says of the Games, where they placed 22nd out of 24 teams. “We were happy to be there.”

“It was the first step,” adds her brother, “towards the Olympics this year.”

Now 26 and 22, the Zaretskys should place higher this time around, having ranked as high as eighth at the 2008 world championships.

Even so, they and their coach, Galit Chait, all decline to say where they hope to end up. “You skate against yourself,” says Roman. “The other skaters, the judges – we try not to think about that.”

Wherever they finish, the Olympics represent a welcome break from their current routine, which recently has been largely confined to Pilates and weightlifting when they’re not on the ice.

In contrast to Turin, the pair plan to stay in Vancouver through the end of the Games. “We must do the closing ceremony,” says the younger Zaretsky. “We don’t want to miss it this time.”

For Sasha, at least, the opening ceremonies should be even more memorable – the dark-haired skater has been tapped to carry Israel’s flag into the Olympic Stadium.

It shouldn’t be hard for her to keep track of the rest of her country’s delegation: in addition to her brother, it’s likely the only other athlete will be Mikail Rezhnin, a 31-year-old skier who also trains in the US.

WHILE THE Zaretskys project poise and concentration on the ice, they’re disarmingly
easygoing away from the rink, chatting casually among themselves in several languages, and occasionally finishing each other’s sentences.

(“One of us will take the car and drive away for a little while,” Roman says, when asked if either of them ever needs space.)

Although their fans are not likely to hear Israel’s national anthem, “Hatikva,” in Vancouver, the Zaretskys will still offer compatriots a few minutes of national pride, performing to “Hava Nagila” during their second skate.

“The ‘original dance’ [theme] is a folk dance this season,” Sasha explains, “and we thought it was great to skate to this piece.”

“It’s excellent music. How could you not enjoy it?” says Chait, a former Olympic ice dancer for Israel who placed eighth with her partner in Turin.

With plans to return to school – and to Israel –
following their skating career, the Zaretskys are currently focused only on competition, answering “everything” when asked what they most need to improve.

But letting his guard down, at least momentarily, Roman smiles later at another query about his goal for the Games.

“Goal?” he says. “The ultimate one. ‘Hatikva’ is always good to hear.”

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