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A little piece of Israeli history will be written next month in the Italian ski resort of Sestriere, some 100 km. west of Turin, where the 2006 Winter Olympics are scheduled to take place. On February 20, when skiers line up at the top of the Giovanni Angelli slope for the alpine ski slalom races, there will be one Israeli among the competitors - for the first time in the nation's history.
Michael Renzhin has only been in Israel for four and a half years, but he has been skiing for more than 20. His father, a skiing coach, taught him how to ski when he was just three years old, and at 13, Renzhin had already decided upon a competitive career. Now 28, he hasn't stopped yet.
"I didn't have much choice, really," he jokes.
Born in Latvia but raised in a small town in the Ukrainian Carpathians, Michael was a part of the Ukrainian national team for six years before moving to Israel.
"I decided to stop racing for the Ukraine because I was always ranked third, and only the top two got to go to competitions and training camps abroad," he explains.
But he didn't come to Israel for an opportunity to compete internationally. If at all, he thought the decision meant the end of his skiing career. But life had other plans for him.
"When I decided to come to Israel I didn't think I'd still be skiing," he recalls, "but when I was preparing all the required documents prior to my arrival, the Jewish Agency in Ukraine contacted the Israeli ski federation and that's how we found each other."
A successful deal it was. Michael achieved what he had always dreamed of - qualifying for the Olympic Games, where he will compete in the slalom and giant slalom races - and the Israeli ski federation will finally see an Israeli skier in the Olympics, 13 years after the first Israeli participation in the skiing world championships.
To qualify for the games Renzhin had to achieve the international federation criterion of less than 140 points, as well as the much tougher Israeli criterion of less than 65 points in any competition he took part in. The points are calculated by the time difference from the winner of the race.
"We've had more athletes competing in the world championships since 1993, so we've gotten better," says Stanley Rubinstein, honorary chairman of the Israeli ski federation. "Also, having Michael there can give us some exposure, although there is quite a bit of exposure to ski in Israel already. Maybe it will give some exposure to the competitive side of the sport."
For Renzhin it's more personal. He is at a loss for words before finally saying, "I'm delighted to be going to the Olympics, it's every athlete's biggest dream. But it's more than that - it's representing Israel, and I'm even happier to be the first one to do it.
"I feel it, but I'm trying not to think about it; I don't want it to distract me. I'm trying to think about the here and now, and not about how important it is."
After qualifying for the Olympics, his next goal is to make it into the top 30 finishers at the games.
IRONICALLY, due to his intense skiing career, Michael has hardly spent any time in Israel since his arrival. In fact, he spends so little time here that he doesn't even have his own place; while in Israel he stays at the Wingate Institute.
"I'm here for about three months every year. I have competitions stretched from December to April, and then there are training camps abroad, too. Last summer, the Israeli team, senior and junior, practiced in Argentina and Chile - it was really good."
Renzhin's family still resides in Ukraine and he claims it's more convenient that way, since he travels around Europe a lot of the time.
"I think that when I stop skiing, they'll move to Israel, too," he says of his family.
Even though he doesn't get to spend a lot of time in Israel, he did endure one of the most intense Israeli experiences - a military service, even if only a symbolic one. Since he arrived in Israel at 24 and had already served two years in the Ukrainian army at 18, his IDF service was reduced to 39 days.
"It was just doing basic training all over again. The only difference was the M-16 instead of the Kalashnikov," he says.
Renzhin now speaks fluent Hebrew and attributes his command of the language to his ulpan teacher, but adds that "we also speak Hebrew in the national team."
The current team consists of three men and one woman, and together they experience the grueling routine of a competitive skier.
"We have around 45 competitions per season," Renzhin explains. "Every competition day is very long, and when we don't compete we have to prepare our equipment. The big stars have people to do it for them, but we do it ourselves. We have our weekends off, but usually there isn't enough time during the weekdays to work on our equipment, so we do it then."
The Israeli team only trains abroad.
"We can never know when it's going to snow on Mount Hermon," explains Rubinstein, "so we have to practice abroad."
Despite fickle skiing conditions, Rubinstein insists the sport is popular among Israelis. The history of skiing in Israel, he says, goes back to the days of the British mandate, when the Palestine ski club was established.
"It was also popular in the '50s, but it really blossomed after the Six Day War. There were no cable cars in Mount Hermon at the time, so people would climb the mountain riding mules."
The Israeli ski federation was formed in 1976 and joined the international federation.
"I happen to talk to a lot of people about skiing in Israel," admits Michael, "and I'm surprised to find out how much they know about skiing. I don't know where they get all the information from."
Funding and practice of the sport is limited to non-existent here, and Israel is part of a group of small nations - including Cyprus, Portugal, Monaco and Ireland - who have similar problems. Nonetheless, the Israeli ski federation often provides help for the ski federations of some North African countries.
"We mostly help them with equipment and arranging training sessions," says Rubinstein. Even though Israel is not the only country with competitive skiers and no practicing conditions, non-Israelis are often surprised to find out it's possible to ski in Israel.
"We tell them that we have snow here, and a mountain. It's not Jamaica. It's very easy to get ski equipment here. But it's still interesting to see Israelis ski - it's not like seeing someone from Austria ski," Renzhin says. "But we tell people Israelis ski, abroad and on the Hermon."
Though Renzhin takes pride in being Israel's only skiing option, he has never actually skied there himself.
"There is snow there for two months or so, so I guess it's possible to practice there a little, but that period of time always overlaps with my competitions abroad, and I must compete. That's why I haven't done it yet," he explains, "but I will."
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