The No. 1 Israeli and Slovenian rowers allowed their oars to drag back. They flexed their arms forward and leaned back as they exhaled as one.
With Dani Fridman at the bow and Gaspar Fistravec at the stern, the two glided down the Yarden River at Daniel Rowing Centre, training for their doubles race in the Henley Royal Regatta.
The Henley, which will be held on River Thames in London on Wednesday, is the most renowned rowing tournament the world has to offer.
This race wasn’t always the plan, though; Fridman’s tattoo, which faces the water as he rows, can tell that story. It consists of five oars bent into circles and intertwined into the shape of the Olympic rings, representing his dream since he was a teenager.
Both Fridman and Fistravec two want to compete in the Olympics. They each lost in the qualifiers during the weekend on May 22.
Fistravec, racing for Slovenia, was in fourth place throughout the entire single sculls. Fridman, representing Israel, almost won. He maintained the lead through 1,750 meters before his speed dropped from 4.7 meters per second to 3.8.
He had suffered a back injury training for the semifinals. He was unable to fight through it and slipped from first place to fourth, not good enough to qualify. He was clearly frustrated when talking about it.
“You work for years: training camps, you don’t see your family, you don’t see your girlfriend, you don’t see your friends, you always travel,” he said. “And then you come and you know you have only one chance to make it. But things like that, like, okay, a little injury, who thinks about it? I was perfect and then” – he snapped for emphasis – “your back.”
Fridman plans to try again in four years. He has reason to be confident; on Saturday, he won his 12th consecutive Israeli Rowing Championship. He didn’t just win, though: he won by more than 20 seconds.
“I have luck that I have this feeling and talent to be a good singles course,” he said.
Zohar Neuner, an employee at Daniel Rowing Centre who has worked with Fridman for four years, thinks the rower has more than just luck. He talked about the Israeli’s mindset and his ability to overcome his height difference from most athletes, which affects his rowing strides.
“Dani’s got something inside him that’s not natural,” Neuner said.
Despite trying to reclaim his title – yet again – Fridman said his higher priority was training for the double sculls challenge cup at Henley with Fistravec.
Most teams consist of a duo from the same country. These two, however, hail from countries with relatively weak talent pool. The two have grown extremely close throughout their past three years of racing against each other, and keep in touch even when they’re not in the same country. They were eager to team up.
These types of friendships are common in the sport. Fridman says rowers get close during competitions. They room together, travel together, and form bonds in their travels. They don’t let rivalries get in the way and he said they aren’t focused on taking other people down.
“It’s not like a fighting sport that you fight and you beat him,” he said. “You just go in water and try to do our best, and who is better prepared is the winner.”
In Slovenia, rowing fluctuates in popularity. In 2008, Fistravec was one of 10 Slovenian rowers to compete in Beijing at the Olympics. Now, he’s the only rower qualified to compete in international competitions.
“You must have heart in rowing,” Fistravec said. “It’s not a sport where you can have a lot of money, but it’s a sport that you must just love.”
Fridman says that there isn’t a culture of rowing in Israel. The Daniel Rowing Centre is working to help it progress; the namesake, Daniel Amichai, was an immigrant from England, an avid rower and an IDF soldier before dying in a car accident at the age of 21. His parents wanted to build something to commemorate his passion and help others participate in the sport as well. The center offers nautical lessons and memberships. About 3,000 people take part in rowing or kayaking every month, according to Neuner.
He said that Fridman’s dominance and personality is more inspiring to kids than any advertisement can be.
“Someone like Dani allows us to advance and promote the sport of rowing in the population of children very successfully because they see someone they can look up to,” Neuner said. “We do a lot of work to bring young kids and youth here to build the next generation and one of the best ways to do it is show them what it looks like when someone succeed... he’s certainly the type of athlete that shows the value of the sport and provides a very positive outlet.”
Neither Fridman nor Fistravec had inspiration from a superstar or an advertisement. Fridman actually planned to play soccer professionally; when he was 15, though, he felt like he wasn’t receiving adequate playing time and requested a transfer. During the year-long wait period, his friends convinced him to go rowing with them.
He enjoyed it immensely, and while his friends competed in the rowing world championships, he stayed and trained so he could join them. For two months, he trained in Tiberius. A year later, he was the junior Israeli champion.
Fistravec comes from a small village near Maribor, Slovenia. When he was eight, his mom told him to go join the rowing club that was about 500 meters from his home. He quickly made friends, and for the first several years, he rowed just because he enjoyed the sport. Like Fridman, though, he saw his friends competing internationally and wanted to do the same.
Two decades later, he’s been to the Olympics. He’s been around Europe, to Australia, to New Zealand. These days, he’s training in Israel.
The unlikely duo hopes to make up for missing out on the biggest world event by succeeding at the greatest rowing tournament.
“We decided to do something new for us and not finish the season like that,” Fistravec said. “Not many crews do the same what we did: to do it together, to go in the doubles Slovenia and Israel.”
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