A tale of two skaters

Not renowned for being a winter sports power, Israel faced a major dilemma ahead of the upcoming World Figure Skating Championships.

At just 17, the Tel Aviv-born Daniel Samohin became Israel’s first ever junior world champion in 2016 (photo credit: REUTERS)
At just 17, the Tel Aviv-born Daniel Samohin became Israel’s first ever junior world champion in 2016
(photo credit: REUTERS)
At the end of March, in Helsinki, Finland, the ISU World Figure Skating Championships will begin, attracting massive international coverage for the premier annual event of a sport with a huge fan base, viewed by television audiences around the globe counted in the tens of millions.
It’s a championship at which Israel ‒ no doubt to the surprise of many ‒ is expected to figure prominently. That, in itself, is something rarely said about Israeli sportsmen and sportswomen at the very highest level and, ironically, having waited for ages for one star talent to come along, what do you know, two arrive at the same time! The men’s competition at the world championships has given management of the Israeli team one huge problem to overcome.
Twenty-nine-year-old Alexei Bychenko and 19 -year-old Daniel Samohin are both highclass male figure skaters but the team has been allotted only one place in the competition.
One of their star skaters was certain to be very disappointed.
The Israeli team had high hopes; indeed, had expected to win two places at the world championships. But when Samohin failed to perform up to expectations and finish in the top 10 at the recent European Championships, it meant only one place was available and they found themselves on the horns of a very awkward dilemma. Should they award the place to the classy, tried and trusted Bychenko, possibly facing his last world championships, or go with Samohin, the young rising star with huge potential?
The year 2016 was fabulous for Israeli ice skating. In Bratislava, Slovakia, that January, Bychenko skated his way to a silver medal in the men’s competition at the European Figure Skating Championships ‒ the first ever Israeli men’s medal at a major international figure-skating championship event. This was a great achievement for the then 27-year-old former Ukrainian who blossomed relatively late in his career. He skated an excellent free program to force his way into second place behind the legendary multiple European and world champion, Javier Fernandez of Spain, just edging out Russian star Maxim Kovtun for second place by 0.35 point.
It was, at last, major recognition for Bychenko, who had made a life-changing decision in 2009 to leave his homeland, move to train in the US and, through his mother’s Jewish heritage, skate for Israel.
“I didn’t see any future for me [in Ukraine],” Bychenko explained to the Golden Skates website following his medal- winning performance. “So, I started to represent Israel. [Being in] another country was very tough for me... but eventually I came to terms with it.
“I didn’t move and leave everyone behind in Ukraine because I wanted to, but because I wanted to work, to train and to achieve a result. Now, I have great people with whom I’m working. They gave me confidence from the very beginning and gave me the chance to believe. This result is not just my merit, but the merit of my whole team and the Israeli Federation.”
A superb seventh in that 36-man topclass competition in Bratislava was Samohin.
Then just 17, the young talent a couple of months later went on to become his country’s first ever junior world champion, putting in a stunning performance in Debrecen, Hungary, to beat the might of the American, Russian, Chinese, Canadian and Japanese rising stars.
In the process, Samohin sent another warning shot across the bow of world figure skating. The Tel Aviv-born prodigy produced a breathtaking free program landing three quadruple jumps ‒ something rarely achieved by far more experienced top-class skaters, which ultimately carried him to a superb first place by a comfortable 12-point margin over silver medalist Nicolas Nadeau of Canada.
Still, he hadn’t expected even that performance to be good enough to win, so he went up into the stands to watch the other main contenders.
“ONCE THE last group started,” Samohin told the International Figure Skating website, “one of the ladies from the organizing committee came up to me and said, ‘You’re a contender for a medal right now so you have to come back with me.’ I asked her what she meant and if I could stay and watch and she said, ‘No, you have to put your skates on.’ ... It was really crazy because I didn’t know how to process the situation. All of a sudden I was in first place and thinking ‘Wow! What the heck?’” Given their respective 2016 achievements, both Israeli men were expected to finish in the top 10 at the European Championships in the Czech Republic last month, but Samohin suffered a major setback.
His luggage, including those all-important skates, went astray from his Lufthansa flight. Despite the Israeli team’s management manning the phones for nearly 72 hours straight, the suitcase couldn’t be located in time.
In the end, Samohin decided to compete using borrowed skates, rather than not skate at all ‒ akin to a racing driver jumping into another team’s car or a championship golfer borrowing a set of clubs from a bystander. It just doesn’t work.
Samohin crashed and burned, finishing 33rd of the 36 skaters in the short program.
He failed to qualify for the free program, which is restricted to the top 24, missing out on the battle for the medals and the essential top 10 finish that would have provided Israel with two representatives at the world championships.
It was a disaster for Samohin and the Israeli team. Bychenko, the defending silver medalist, went on to skate well, finishing fifth, a little disappointing in the end, however, having been in silver medal position after the short program.
On the face of it, the notion of Israelis being serious contenders at winter sports should be as unlikely as the famous Jamaican bobsleigh team that caused a media sensation when it competed at the 1988 Winter Olympic Games. But, unlike other winter sports where outdoor wintry conditions are a prerequisite to training and building a broad base of competitors from which to fashion a national team, top-level figure skating requires a quality indoor ice rink, high-class coaches, a pool of young talent, and proper financial support. Israel, arguably, qualifies on three of these four criteria.
Israel being Israel, however, and sports (other than soccer and basketball) being given scant consideration or support from the powers that be, you don’t need the intuitive skills of Sherlock Holmes to figure out that it is proper financial support that is missing.
NEVERTHELESS, THERE is an Israeli precedent for medaling at the world championships, the biggest event of the skating calendar ‒ with the exception of the Winter Olympic Games, which take place every four years. Back in 2002, in Nagano, Japan, Galit Chait and Sergei Sakhnovski stunned the international figure skating world by taking a bronze medal in the pairs competition.
Chait, now known by her married name Galit Chait Moracci, is currently based in New York and, along with Roman Serov, trains a number of talented skaters, including Bychenko, at the Israeli overseas training center in Hackensack, New Jersey. Her father, Boris, personally contributes financial support to the training center and is head of the Israel Skating Federation.
Boris Chait spoke to The Jerusalem Report ahead of the decision about which of his star skaters would be sent to the world championships. It was clear that the final say on whether to send Bychenko or Samohin would be incredibly hard and, doubtless, controversial.
“We would have been in a very different situation if Daniel had skated into the top 10 in the Europeans, but you have to take the good and the bad in sport,” Chait reasoned.
“We could follow every logic [as to which man to choose] and probably everybody is right. No matter what decision we eventually make it will not be right in somebody’s eyes, but I think in the end we have to do it on the ice.
“On the other hand, we have two top skaters of such quality to choose from. I wish I could have this problem every year!” The world championships, he said, are going to be one of the toughest because of the proximity of the 2018 Winter Olympics.
“First and foremost, our expectation is to get into the top 10 as that opens up the door for a lot of good things to happen. If you get into the top 10, you get two places at the Winter Olympic Games and that is our main target.”
So, Chait, sensibly in the view of most neutral observers and to avoid any possible claims of nepotism given that his daughter trains Bychenko, decided that the World Championship selection would be based solely on the outcome of the Cup of Tyrol competition in Innsbruck, Austria, which culminated on March 4.
I asked his views on the lack of local media coverage and investment in a sport that is producing such great results ‒ unlike the hugely invested but chronically under- achieving Israeli soccer, for example.
Chait didn’t mince his words.
“Without mentioning names or sports, there are federations that don’t win anything, and we win championships and place in the Europeans, and don’t get the funding.
Really, we are like bastards. Nobody seems to want us. Frustrating is not the word. It is just pathetic.
“WE’VE GOT so many young people skating now and they’re doing really well, but if [the Israeli authorities] are not going to support the national and the Olympic team and give them enough means to achieve what we are looking for, it is all going to disappear.”
Going into the 24-man free program of the Cup of Tyrol, the battle between the two Israelis could hardly have been closer. Samohin achieved 70.45 in his short program, while Bychenko just bettered him with 71.68. In the all-important free program Samohin skated third last, and although not at his very best, urged on by parents Igor (his coach), and Irina (his chorographer), he scored a highly respectable 149.73, skating to music from the soundtrack of the movie, “The Illusionist.”
Bychenko, to add to the drama, was last to skate. With the tension palpable, he stepped onto the ice to present his free program to the famous operatic aria “Pagliacci” by Leoncavallo.
He skated well, showing all the experience gained both in the Ukraine and subsequently representing Israel over the last eight years. It wasn’t a perfect performance, but the judges awarded 160.06, enough to win the silver medal behind Latvian star Dennis Vasiljevs.
Samohin, for whom there will be many more big opportunities in the future, took the bronze. So, it is Bychenko who will go into battle for Israel in Helsinki at the end of this month.
In case you thought Israel’s world championship prospects rest solely with Bychenko and Samohin, keep an eye out in the Ice Dance competition for Isabella Tobias and Ilya Tkachenko. The couple has been in superb form this season, capped by a 4th place finish at the recent European championships in the Czech Republic. Tobias, whose original career saw her study for seven years at the George Balanchine School of American Ballet and perform with the New York City Ballet before switching to the ice, and Russian-born Tkachenko, the 2005 ice dance world junior bronze medalist, are both experienced skaters, who have competed in the past with other partners.
“We were thrilled by their performance in Ostrava,” Anna Slavin, general secretary of the Israel Ice Skating Federation, told The Report. “It’s a joy watching them every time. They are both very professional skaters. You can see how they have progressed over the last year, not only improving from 10th to 4th place in the Europeans, but in the synergy between them. It’s great to see two professional skaters who really take their job seriously.
“Isabella is a dancer from the inside out. They look very good together. She’s a beautiful girl, and he’s a handsome man.”
Slavin was keen to quantify the huge growth of interest and participation in Israeli figure skating at the grass-roots level.
“I think the Russians who came here waited a long time for this to happen and we are now seeing the increase in this new generation getting involved. They are now Sabras, but we have seen a massive increase all around Israel.
“When I came to work here in 2013, the Holon [near Tel Aviv] rink had just opened. Eilat opened at approximately the same time. [Metula, in the North, is the oldest Israeli facility.] I registered just 17 Israeli skaters, but they were all living in the United States. The next year we went up to 171 local skaters. After two years, it went up to 263 and, in 2016, we were closing in on 400 active skaters, eight years of age and older, and all involved in at least four competitions a season.”
That all-important top 10 finish at the world championships is the target for Bychenko and Tobias and Tkachenko because it would open the door for more Israeli skaters to qualify for major international events going forward. In many respects, the future of Israeli figure skating is in their hands and will be determined by their results in Helsinki.
Paul Alster is an Israel-based journalist. Follow him on Twitter @paul_alster and visit his website: www.paulalster.com