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(photo credit: AP)
Ice dancer Galit Chait led Israel's delegation at the opening ceremony of the 20th Winter Olympic Games in the Torino Olympic Stadium Friday night.
In the presence of 35,000 spectators at the two-and-ahalf hour event, whose theme was "Passion Lives Here," Italian President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi declared the games open and gave way to two action-packed weeks of competition.
When the Israeli team entered the stadium, it received a big cheer not only from the local crowd but also from a number of Israeli fans who chanted in Hebrew.
The Parade of Nations, which included 2,500 athletes from 80 countries, was a big moment for the Israeli athletes, even for those who have Olympic experience.
"It was unbelievable," said Chait, who was also the flag bearer at the Salt Lake City games four years ago. "It's a big honor to carry your flag, especially when you do it twice."
She admitted, though, that competing at the Olympics for the third time is different. "I can't remember much from my first Olympics. From the second time I mostly remember carrying the flag. I hope to remember everything from those games."
"We're proud to be representing our country, we're proud of our country and I think the country is proud of us because we are a summer country, so having athletes here is a good thing," said Chait's partner, Sergei Sakhnovsky.
Alexandra Zaretsky, ice dancer and first-time Olympian alongside her elder brother, Roman, could barely find words to describe how she felt. "It was amazing," she said. "You can say it with just one sentence, you can't understand it. You have to be there."
"I always dreamed of being here," added Roman, "but there's a difference between imagining it and feeling like I felt when I walked into the stadium."
The opening ceremony performances highlighted Italian history from the Renaissance and the Baroque, as well as showing the modern, high-tech lives in the country with a special representation of the Alpine region of the country, where the games are taking place.
Following the tradition of previous Olympic Games, the ceremony featured local and international stars. Yoko Ono and Peter Gabriel participated in a special segment, the "song for peace", in which Gabriel performed John Lennon's Imagine.
The Olympic torch was brought into the stadium and carried around it by four past Italian winter Olympians, before the most decorated athlete in Italy's winter sports history, Stefania Belmondo, lit the Olympic cauldron.
The show ended with Italian opera megastar Luciano Pavarotti singing the appropriate Nessun Dorma from Puccini's "Turandot."
On Saturday it was down to business as the two Israeli ice dance couples had their first practice session. Afterwards, accompanied by tight security, they left for Milan, where they will practice privately before returning to Turin for their competition, which begins on February 17.
Before setting out, Chait and Sakhnovsky spoke to The Jerusalem Post about representing Israel and why they have to spend most of their time outside Israel.
"Some people in Israel go to the army and donate to the country like that. Other people do it in skating," Sakhnovsky explained.
"You have to be where the coaches are," Chait noted. "If we had our coaches moving to Israel we could have practiced there, but they are in the United States, and if you want to improve, you have to have the best coaches."
The two speak very little Hebrew, but Sakhnovsky says it is mainly due to the lack of practice. "It's not that I don't want to speak Hebrew, it's just that I don't really get the opportunity, but I'm sure that when I'll live there for two months I'll get the grasp of it.
"We plan to move back to Israel after we finish our professional career and we hope we can open a skating school there."