It is not often that multiple world record holders and Olympic champions in any sport compete in Israel, especially in a prestigious Olympic flagship like swimming. But starting from next Wednesday, approximately 600 swimmers from 47 countries will descend on the pool at the Wingate Institute in Netanya to participate in the European Short Course Swimming Championships.
Israeli swimming has never hosted an event of such a magnitude, with the budget of the championships estimated at NIS 11 million, with 280,000 euros to be handed out to the swimmers in prize money.
Special seating for 1,000 fans has been erected for the championships, with total attendance to reach 2,500.
Among the illustrious international names competing in the event will be world champion and world record holder Adam Peaty of Great Britain, as well as fellow past and present world record holders Katinka Hosszu of Hungary, Paul Biedermann of Germany and Federica Pellegrini of Italy.
Israel will send its biggest ever delegation to an international swimming event, with 50 blue-and-white swimmers to take part during the five days of competition.
The Israeli delegation is also looking to extend its medal streak at the event, scaling the podium at least once in each of the past three editions.
National team coach Leonid Kaufman believes six of Israel’s swimmers are capable of claiming a medal at Wingate, naming Amit Ivry, Andrea Murez, Gal Nevo, Guy Barnea, David Gamburg and Yakov Toumarkin as the prime candidates.
Nevo is a six-time former medalist at the competition, while Barnea won a silver in 2012. No Israeli has ever won a gold medal at the championships.
“The excitement is great and as are the expectations,” said Kaufman.
“There are swimmers that can record personal bests and bring glory to Israel by reaching finals and winning medals.
But this is sport and you need to know how to peak at the right time and cope with everything else as well.”
Kaufman knows Israel’s swimmers don’t entirely depend on themselves, but believes they are entering the event in top form.
“If they do something special they can win a medal. There is no question that they need to reach finals, but taking a medal doesn’t depend entirely on you. It also depends on the level of the competition, but at their best they can fight for a medal.”
Kaufman is confident the local support will help the swimmers rather than harm their performance by putting them under additional pressure, a sentiment echoed by Barnea.
“It will be a lot of fun to compete in the pool in which I grew up,” said Barnea. “At the moment we aren’t feeling any additional pressure, but more of a fun excitement. For us this isn’t the most important event of the season because there are Olympics next summer. This is a competition we can enjoy. The quality will be really high and I think there also might be some world records. It will be a celebration and this is exactly what Israeli swimming needs at the moment.”
Barnea has spent the past couple of months training in the US and he believes he is capable of setting personal bests and winning a medal in the 50-meter and 100m backstroke.
“Usually they only talk about swimmers after a championship or during a competition and not before an event. But because all the preparations are being held in Israel and swimmers are coming here from abroad it feels different,” explained Barnea. “We have more swimmers than usual because we are the hosts. Everyone is taking these championships even more seriously than other championships as we want to do well in front of the home crowd. I can only imagine what it might feel like to compete at home and I can’t wait to discover.
“I know that in previous national championships when I registered a special achievement one of the funnest parts was to see all the fans on their feet so experiencing something like that in a big international event will be that more special. My goal is to record personal bests in the championships and I believe that if I do so I should finish on the podium. I always believe in myself.”
Barnea has yet to qualify for the Rio Olympics, and while he won’t be able to do so in Wingate as short course events are not contested at the Olympics, he believes that a good performance next week could help him in the long run.
“There is a good atmosphere around the team and positive excitement,” he said. “I think competing in Israel will do us good. The swimmers look relaxed and sometimes you have your best swims when you’re relaxed.”
Barnea hopes the championships will help promote swimming in Israel.
“I think this is an amazing opportunity that rarely arrives. If things go well there is no reason that Israel shouldn’t host other championships like the long course European Championships,” he said.
“The exposure will mean parents and children will see how amazing this sport is, as well as the high level of the Israeli delegation compared to the world. Other sports in Israel receive far greater exposure despite not even registering half of our success.”
Kaufman also feels next week’s championships could be a turning point for Israeli swimming, attracting new audiences to the sport which one day could become its future stars.
“This can contribute a lot to Israeli swimming. Not only to the 50 swimmers taking part, but also to the 500 or so who we have training in Israel and the 5,000 or so juniors and their parents,” said Kaufman. “A parent watching the championships on TV might be more willing to send his child to swim.
The championships can help in every aspect, but mainly the popularity of the sport. It can give it a real push.”