Sinai Says: Five athletes with five backgrounds represent Israel at worlds

Five Israelis will participate in this year’s championships in Beijing, which get underway on Saturday and will run for eight days.

Israel’s triple-jumper Hanna Knyazyeva-Minenko (photo credit: TIBOR JAGER)
Israel’s triple-jumper Hanna Knyazyeva-Minenko
(photo credit: TIBOR JAGER)
It may not be the biggest or best delegation Israel has ever sent to the World Athletics Championships. However, it is surely the most fascinating group of athletes that have represented the country in the showcase event of track and field.
Five Israelis will participate in this year’s championships in Beijing, which get underway on Saturday and will run for eight days.
Triple-jumper Hanna Knyazyeva-Minenko, runner Donald Sanford, javelin-thrower Marharyta Dorozhon, high-jumper Dmitry Kroyter and sprinter Olga Lenskiy are all of different ages and backgrounds.
But what they do all have in common is that none were born in Israel.
All five arrived in the Holy Land at different times and stages of their lives, and have grown to become proud Israelis, looking to bring honor to their country on the international stage.
Knyazyeva-Minenko, Dorozhon and Sanford all once represented other countries. But their change of national allegiances has nothing to do with financial reasons or improving their chances of participating in major competitions.
After all, the 25-year-old Knyazyeva-Minenko finished in fourth position as a Ukrainian at the London 2012 Olympics, while Dorozhon also represented Ukraine at both the London Games and the previous world championships.
It was coincidence that brought the three to Israel. It was love, rather than money, that has changed the course of their careers.
Knyazyeva-Minenko chose to represent Israel after marrying former decathlete Anatoly Minenko, who is originally from Kazakhstan but arrived in Israel in 1997 at the age of 10 with his parents.
She is Israel’s only realistic medal hope in Beijing, finishing sixth in the previous edition of the championships in Moscow, her first major event as an Israeli.
“When Anatoly proposed to me, it was not easy for me to make up my mind to come to Israel,” Knyazyeva-Minenko recently told the IAAF website. “People in Ukraine said there were lots of problems, it’s dangerous, there’s war and conflict, no sort of normal life.
“But when we got married and I came over here, I myself was very surprised to see how different life is in Israel. I’m very happy with Israelis, with Israel, and with our home in Tel Aviv.”
Knyazyeva-Minenko improved her own national record in Prague in June, jumping 14.61 meters, making her only one of five athletes to have cleared 14.50m this year.
She is hoping to finally improve her personal best of 14.71m set as a Ukrainian three years ago, a result which could very well be good enough for a place on the podium in Beijing.
Dorozhon became an Israeli citizen last year when she married former 800m runner and current track coach Alex Bugoslavsky.
Unlike Knyazyeva-Minenko, she has improved significantly since leaving Ukraine, winning the javelin competition at the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Oslo in June with a new personal best and national record of 64.56m.
“Getting married and then coming to Israel was a big step,” she told the IAAF website.
“However, I’m very happy to be here and my javelin throwing has greatly improved this year and hopefully I’ll continue to improve in the future. When my name appeared next to the Israeli flag at my first international competition, it was a great honor for me to represent my new country.
“I’ll do my best for Beijing and the Rio Olympics and hope to get a medal. I’m learning the Israeli national anthem. If I ever happen to get a gold medal, I want to sing the national anthem in Hebrew!” Like Knyazyeva-Minenko and Dorozhon, Sanford has also set a new national record this year while securing his place at next summer’s Rio Olympics.
The Los Angeles native set a time of 45.04 seconds, improving his personal best from five years ago.
During his time at Arizona State University, Sanford met Israeli basketball player Danielle Dekel and the two have settled at Kibbutz Ein Shemer. Sanford first represented Israel in 2012 and became the first Israeli to win a medal in a sprint event at the European Athletics Championships when he finished third in the 400-meters final last year.
While Kroyter and Lenskiy were both born abroad, being brought to Israel as children by their parents from the former Soviet Union, unlike their fellow delegation members, their entire development as athletes has taken place in the country.
Nevertheless, their road to representing Israel at the world championships in Beijing has been anything but straightforward.
When Kroyter made his debut at the world championships four years ago it seemed like nothing would stop his rise to the summit.
The Siberia-born jumper claimed the gold medal at the World Youth Championships in Sudtirol, Italy, in 2009 before finishing in first place at the Youth Olympics in Singapore the following year. He went on to set a careerbest 2.28m six days before his 18th birthday in February 2011, and in his worst nightmares he couldn’t have envisioned that he would find himself on the verge of retirement at the age of 21 after spending the subsequent years battling an unrelenting injury.
Thankfully, long-time coach and mentor Anatoly Shafran pleaded with him to try one more doctor he had heard of in Germany, a decision which ultimately saved his career.
The doctor discovered that the source of the pain was a scar that caused thigh strains every time his body reached a certain level of intensity.
Kroyter’s career immediately took off once more. He won a silver medal at the European Athletics Under-23 Championships in Tallinn, Estonia in July with a jump of 2.24m before booking his place at the world championships by equaling his career-best from over four years ago, clearing 2.28m in Leiria, Portugal.
Just over two weeks ago, he secured his place at the Rio Olympics, setting a new personal best of 2.29m in Schifflange, Luxembourg.
Lenskiy enters the championships with the least amount of expectations after only being officially awarded her place on the delegation this past Saturday. Lenskiy was certain she had booked her berth in Beijing and the Rio Games after registering a time of 23.18 seconds in the 200-meters last month. However, she soon discovered that there were no official wind measurements in the event outside of Moscow, casting doubt over the validity of her result. Ultimately, the IAAF approved the result and handed her a place at the world championships.
It was not the first time the 22-year-old’s career had been rocked by controversy. Last June, she was suspended until the end of the year and had her 100-meter national record rescinded by the Anti-Doping Committee of Israel.
Lenskiy broke Esther Roth-Shachamarov’s 42-year-old record in April 2014, clocking a time of 11.42 seconds at Hadar Yosef Stadium in Tel Aviv. However, the Israel Athletics Association announced that she failed to show up for a drugs test the morning after setting the new national best, notifying the testers that she will not be able to attend it as planned as she needs to fly to Ukraine to be beside her ailing grandmother.
Lenskiy only returned from Ukraine after more than three weeks, explaining that she was treated for a nervous breakdown and urinary infection in a hospital in Lviv.
Her mere participation in Beijing is a great triumph considering all she has overcome.
It remains to be seen what accomplishments she, and the rest of Israel’s representatives, can register at the world championships.
One thing is for certain though – it will only be the latest chapter in the compelling careers of the cream of Israeli athletics.