A remarkable athlete, obsessed with the sea, having overcome childhood problems
to become Israel’s best prospect for gold at this past summer’s London Olympics,
Lee-el Korzits nearly died in pursuit of her Olympic dreams.
struck for Lee, as she is commonly known, in 2009 as the Haderaborn windsurfer
was doing a photo shoot arranged by one of her sponsors. The gold medalist in
the 2003 World Windsurfing Championships was enjoying some time off from
competition. Or so she thought.
Windsurfing off the famous Hookipa Beach
at Maui, Hawaii, Korzits suddenly felt a sharp thud from behind as another
windsurfer inadvertently plowed his surfboard into her back, plunging her
underwater, barely conscious. The waves crashed her on to some rocks. “I felt
something was wrong at once,” she tells The Jerusalem Report, “because I
Watching in horror, other surfers raced toward
Korzits, pulling her to safety. By now she was unconscious and some feared for
her life. Emergency crews rushed her to a nearby hospital where she spent two
weeks recovering, listening to doctors predict that she would neither windsurf
nor walk again.
Suffering broken ribs and a broken back, she might even
be paralyzed for life.
She looked through her hospital windows and saw
windsurfers but she “preferred to sit in a room without windows than to see them
windsurf and take the waves.”
All the doctors’ gloomy talk left her
exasperated, as did her plight – unable to get out of her bed, a morphine drip
nearby, killing the pain from her injuries. One leg remained
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Unable to talk, four days after the accident she asked a
friend to phone her parents.
“My mother went crazy,” Korzits
Rather than go to Hawaii, her parents sent a paramedic to bring
their stricken daughter home.
Scoffing at the doctor’s dire predictions,
Korzits vowed to herself that she would soon be back in the water,
Foregoing the morphine, she got off her bed in two days,
convinced that only sport and the sea could induce her to walk
Friends suggested that her near-tragic accident might have been a
sign to her that she should relax, abandon all water sport, but she ignored such
A month later she went back to Michmoret, the tiny community on
the Mediterranean, where she grew up and learned to windsurf.
barely walk. “I started to feel the really small waves but every move hurt so
much. I started crying so much because I felt the sea was cheating me. This is
my safe place and now it’s cheating me. So that was really a hard time.”
It took her a year – the worst year of her life, she called it – to get back to
windsurfing. She missed the water, its energy and its calm. “There is a quiet to
the sea that I cannot find on land.”
We meet in early September 2012,
a month after the London Olympics, sitting on beach chairs looking out over the
Michmoret shore, just north of Netanya. As Korzits approaches a nearby café,
acquaintances break out in applause. It is the first time they’ve seen her since
the London Olympics. On her back is a tattoo with the letters, “WWOG.” She says
it stands for “wave, wind, one God.”
Her face is serious, and at times
she smiles; she does not appear entirely free of physical pain.
her parents moved from Hadera to Michmoret when she was six years
Korzits began windsurfing a year later, attaching herself to the
nearby Emek Hefer Sailing Club that routinely taught windsurfing to kids once
they turned eight years old. Jealous of her eight-year-old brother Tom-el’s love
of windsurfing, she joined the club a year early.
Problems in school –
she is dyslexic – made the sea all the more attractive. As a novice windsurfer,
she took small waves, but handling large waves brought her a self-confidence that
helped in school. “The sea gave me power and energy.”
Indeed, the sea is
the main locale of family business: her father, Sasson, is a lifeguard and her
mother, Michal, a swimmer; her older brother Tom-el, a windsurfing coach; and
her sister, Bar-el, seven years younger than Lee, is a youth windsurfing world
champion. For a while Tom served as Lee’s coach, but they parted after a year,
realizing that, as brother and sister, they were too close to be coach and
Sasson came from Poland. “We changed the name Kojits to
Korzits,” Lee notes, ”because we didn’t know how to spell it and it was really
hard to write Kojits in Hebrew.”
As a teenager, Lee Korzits grew and
grew, reaching five feet ten inches (1.77 meters), and her muscular body
acquired a strength that turned her into a world-class windsurfer. She was youth
judo champion at the age of 14, although judo was not her main sports interest.
After the judo achievement, she opted for windsurfing full-time.
not dream of becoming a world champion. But having so much fun with the sport,
she simply could not stop training.
“I didn’t believe in myself that
much. But I really liked what I was doing. So every day after school I didn’t
need a coach to say to me, ‘Lee, go train,’ because I went in the water for
hours and hours.”
Entering her first surfing competition in the sea off
Portugal, at age 14, she finished 12th, one of 70 entrants, A year later, at age
15, she entered her first windsurfing competition near Marseilles in the south
of France, and finished fifth. Finding surfing too stressful, she focused on
(“Surfing became my fun.”) Inspiring Korzits was another
windsurfer, Gal Fridman, the first and only Israeli Olympic gold medalist
(Athens 2004) and the only Israeli to win two Olympic medals (he also won bronze at the 1996
Atlanta Olympics). Korzits hoped to learn what had made Fridman an Olympic
“He was not a role model but he definitely had something that I
wanted. He taught me what it took to be an athlete.”
Then, in 2003, at
the age of 19, Korzits won the Windsurfing World Championships in Cadiz, Spain,
the first Israeli female world champion in any sport and the youngest windsurfer
to win the world title. It was only a year away from the 2004 Athens Olympics:
she yearned for Olympic gold. Yet coming in only 13th place and, wracked with
disappointment, Korzits thought of quitting. But ambition kept her
Over the next four years she sought to improve but as the 2008
Beijing Olympics neared, she failed to qualify.
Then came the near-fatal
Hookipa Beach accident. Even so, Korzits was determined to keep her dreams
alive. She had a big incentive: knowing that no Israeli woman had won an Olympic
medal since Yael Arad won her country’s first medal, silver, for judo, at the
1992 Barcelona Olympics.
Not knowing day to day whether she could even
marshal the strength and energy to windsurf, Korzits set her sights on the 2012 London Olympics, but it seemed
at best a faraway, almost unreachable dream.
When her year of
rehabilitation ended, she began competing again. But in the July 2010 European
Windsurfing Championships held in Sopot, Poland, she suffered a second almost
deadly accident. This time a fellow competitor crashed into her, trapping her
underwater, beneath her sail. One of the coaches, realizing she was unconscious,
jumped into the water, separated her from the board and swam her to shore where
he resuscitated her. Korzits downplays the second accident, suggesting that the
media had exaggerated its severity.
Demonstrating that she had overcome
the second accident, defying her doctors, she became the windsurfing world
champion in Perth, Australia, in December 2011, again making history as the
first Israeli, male or female, to win two world titles in any sport.
was voted Israeli Sports Personality of the Year for 2011.
later, she defended her world championship successfully in Cadiz, Spain, four
months prior to the London Olympics. With those back-to-back world
championships, she seemed a near shoo-in for Olympic gold and the pressure
“So lofty are the expectations from Korzits that anything but a
medal this summer will be remembered as one of the biggest disappointments in
Israeli Olympic history,” wrote The Jerusalem Post two weeks before the London
Unwilling to let the pressure impact her, Lee says only
that she would do her best. “I didn’t feel the pressure. I know how to put
myself in a bubble.” She knew what sports journalists were writing: “Everywhere
in Israel I was called the Israeli hope.”
She did not sightsee in London
prior to her windsurfing event. “I was really concentrating on getting a medal.
I wasn’t interested in touring, drinking at night.”
She told herself:
“Lee, you have a mission, you have to make this dream come true.”
early rounds of competition, the gold seemed within her grasp. After winning the
eighth of the opening 11 races in her event, she was in second place overall.
But the next day she slipped to fourth place. A third round would decide the
To capture the gold, Korzits knew that she needed heavy winds
behind her. “For my body, it’s much better if I have strong winds because I am
big and strong,” and can exploit those winds. The forecast that morning was for
good winds but by the time she reached the water the winds had died
After that third race, Lee came in sixth, missing out on a medal.
She admits that she was not feeling well as the final race got under way. “I was
not happy. I have some medical problems. But I tried my best. With all that I
had, I tried.”
Whether she competes at another Olympic Games – the next
will be in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – depends in part on whether
windsurfing is dropped as an Olympic sport, as has been rumored, and the extreme
sport of kite surfing replaces it. While Korzits has kite surfed, she
acknowledges that it is far more dangerous than windsurfing – a stiff wind can
pull the kite surfer up into the air with little control over how or where to
land. She seems uncertain whether she wants to go after a kite surfing
In the days following London, some Israelis expressed outrage that
Israel had not won an Olympic medal. One politician said the Knesset should
convene a special hearing to delve into the Olympics “failure.” Korzits welcomes
the effort to analyze the problems in local sport and learn from them. Defending
herself and her fellow Olympic athletes, she insists that she and her
compatriots gave all that they could.
She acknowledges that Israel’s most
talented athletes have in recent years pursued career paths that kept them from
training and achieving in sports. “They go to the army, start their lives, try
to make money because sport doesn’t pay that well.
You go to sport only
if it’s your love and you are following your dream.” Israel, she notes, does not
order its promising athletes to pursue sports at all other costs.
the future, she plans to study water-oriented occupational therapy as part of
her undergraduate studies that she will begin in October. She has already begun
writing a column for Yedioth Ahronoth, the mass circulation newspaper, on all
sorts of subjects, not just sports.
“Right now I am going through a
recovery and giving my body everything it needs. After I am good, I will
go full power.”
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