Anyone who thought that Israeli kayaking peaked with Michael Kolganov's bronze medal at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney may need to think again. There's a new star on the horizon and he's learning how to be the best from Kolganov himself.
Barak Lopen, 19, is only in his first season at the senior level, but coaches have already seen enough potential in him to team him with Kolganov, 35, in the two-man 500-meter events and the results have been promising. The freshly crowned Israeli champs have already secured a berth at next month's European Championships in the Czech Republic.
Lopen's road to kayaking success was a surprise to some. After all, he was born water-locked in Kibbutz Ginossar and didn't pick up the sport until the seventh grade. But now he's learning to master the trade at the Emek Hayarden kayaking club in Tiberias, where the roots of the sport in Israel began.
Michael Fligulahgvili made aliya from the former Soviet Union in 1972 and brought his love for water sports to the country with him. He founded the Emek Hayarden kayaking club and since then, the sport has grown in popularity among Israeli youth.
At this year's Israeli Kayaking Championships, which concluded Saturday at the Kinneret, Lopen shined as part of a new generation of kayakers that possess a lot of talent.
"If [Lopen] continues like this, I feel it is possible for him to be at the top," Fligulahgvili said Saturday morning.
Lopen competed the past two years at the junior level - finishing ninth last year at both the European and World Championships.
The decision to pair him with Kolganov in his first season has not only helped him find success, but it is also teaching him what it takes to be a professional.
"Kolganov is very experienced and I'm excited to kayak with him," Lopen said after their second place, semifinal finish Friday afternoon. "I learn a lot of mechanics from him: form, what to eat, how to rest."
The two leave for Pouch, Poland, next week to participate in a training camp with a local team that is designed to help them prepare for the European Championships.
Kalganov and Lopen have been practicing together on the same team for the past two years, but were only teamed together for doubles two months ago.
"I feel good about being matched with Lopen, but there is still a lot of work to do," Kolganov said after they won their 500m event on Saturday morning. "It is not enough for us to work hard and do our best, we need the whole organization to work and be behind us to succeed."
Kolganov was hesitant to make any guesses about how they will perform in Europe, but he said their target is to be in the finals.
"It is too early to speak about medals or first place," he said. "Our goal is to get the nearest to the final as we can and we have no other things in mind right now."
Lopen also was modest about his hopes for a podium finish next month. "I hope to get to the finals and to finish in the top five would be great," he said.
And even if it doesn't happen this time, you can expect to continue hearing from Lopen as the Beijing and London Olympics come and go.
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