Queen of wind and waves

Lee-el Korzits overcame near tragic accidents to become a three-time Windsurfing World Champion.

Lee Korzits 370 (photo credit: Amir Cohen)
Lee Korzits 370
(photo credit: Amir Cohen)
A remarkable athlete, obsessed with the sea, having overcome childhood problems to become Israel’s best prospect for gold at this past summer’s London Olympics, Lee-el Korzits nearly died in pursuit of her Olympic dreams.
Disaster struck for Lee, as she is commonly known, in 2009 as the Haderaborn windsurfer was doing a photo shoot arranged by one of her sponsors. The gold medalist in the 2003 World Windsurfing Championships was enjoying some time off from competition. Or so she thought.
Windsurfing off the famous Hookipa Beach at Maui, Hawaii, Korzits suddenly felt a sharp thud from behind as another windsurfer inadvertently plowed his surfboard into her back, plunging her underwater, barely conscious. The waves crashed her on to some rocks. “I felt something was wrong at once,” she tells The Jerusalem Report, “because I couldn’t breathe.”
Watching in horror, other surfers raced toward Korzits, pulling her to safety. By now she was unconscious and some feared for her life. Emergency crews rushed her to a nearby hospital where she spent two weeks recovering, listening to doctors predict that she would neither windsurf nor walk again.
Suffering broken ribs and a broken back, she might even be paralyzed for life.
She looked through her hospital windows and saw windsurfers but she “preferred to sit in a room without windows than to see them windsurf and take the waves.”
All the doctors’ gloomy talk left her exasperated, as did her plight – unable to get out of her bed, a morphine drip nearby, killing the pain from her injuries. One leg remained paralyzed.
Unable to talk, four days after the accident she asked a friend to phone her parents.
“My mother went crazy,” Korzits recalls.
Rather than go to Hawaii, her parents sent a paramedic to bring their stricken daughter home.
Scoffing at the doctor’s dire predictions, Korzits vowed to herself that she would soon be back in the water, windsurfing.
Foregoing the morphine, she got off her bed in two days, convinced that only sport and the sea could induce her to walk again.
Friends suggested that her near-tragic accident might have been a sign to her that she should relax, abandon all water sport, but she ignored such comments.
A month later she went back to Michmoret, the tiny community on the Mediterranean, where she grew up and learned to windsurf.
She could barely walk. “I started to feel the really small waves but every move hurt so much. I started crying so much because I felt the sea was cheating me. This is my safe place and now it’s cheating me. So that was really a hard time.”
It took her a year – the worst year of her life, she called it – to get back to windsurfing. She missed the water, its energy and its calm. “There is a quiet to the sea that I cannot find on land.”
We meet in early September 2012, a month after the London Olympics, sitting on beach chairs looking out over the Michmoret shore, just north of Netanya. As Korzits approaches a nearby café, acquaintances break out in applause. It is the first time they’ve seen her since the London Olympics. On her back is a tattoo with the letters, “WWOG.” She says it stands for “wave, wind, one God.”
Her face is serious, and at times she smiles; she does not appear entirely free of physical pain.
She and her parents moved from Hadera to Michmoret when she was six years old.
Korzits began windsurfing a year later, attaching herself to the nearby Emek Hefer Sailing Club that routinely taught windsurfing to kids once they turned eight years old. Jealous of her eight-year-old brother Tom-el’s love of windsurfing, she joined the club a year early.
Problems in school – she is dyslexic – made the sea all the more attractive. As a novice windsurfer, she took small waves, but handling large waves brought her a self-confidence that helped in school. “The sea gave me power and energy.”
Indeed, the sea is the main locale of family business: her father, Sasson, is a lifeguard and her mother, Michal, a swimmer; her older brother Tom-el, a windsurfing coach; and her sister, Bar-el, seven years younger than Lee, is a youth windsurfing world champion. For a while Tom served as Lee’s coach, but they parted after a year, realizing that, as brother and sister, they were too close to be coach and athlete.
Sasson came from Poland. “We changed the name Kojits to Korzits,” Lee notes, ”because we didn’t know how to spell it and it was really hard to write Kojits in Hebrew.”
As a teenager, Lee Korzits grew and grew, reaching five feet ten inches (1.77 meters), and her muscular body acquired a strength that turned her into a world-class windsurfer. She was youth judo champion at the age of 14, although judo was not her main sports interest. After the judo achievement, she opted for windsurfing full-time.
She did not dream of becoming a world champion. But having so much fun with the sport, she simply could not stop training.
“I didn’t believe in myself that much. But I really liked what I was doing. So every day after school I didn’t need a coach to say to me, ‘Lee, go train,’ because I went in the water for hours and hours.”
Entering her first surfing competition in the sea off Portugal, at age 14, she finished 12th, one of 70 entrants, A year later, at age 15, she entered her first windsurfing competition near Marseilles in the south of France, and finished fifth. Finding surfing too stressful, she focused on windsurfing.
(“Surfing became my fun.”) Inspiring Korzits was another windsurfer, Gal Fridman, the first and only Israeli Olympic gold medalist (Athens 2004) and the only Israeli to win two Olympic medals (he also won bronze at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics). Korzits hoped to learn what had made Fridman an Olympic medalist.
“He was not a role model but he definitely had something that I wanted. He taught me what it took to be an athlete.”
Then, in 2003, at the age of 19, Korzits won the Windsurfing World Championships in Cadiz, Spain, the first Israeli female world champion in any sport and the youngest windsurfer to win the world title. It was only a year away from the 2004 Athens Olympics: she yearned for Olympic gold. Yet coming in only 13th place and, wracked with disappointment, Korzits thought of quitting. But ambition kept her going.
Over the next four years she sought to improve but as the 2008 Beijing Olympics neared, she failed to qualify.
Then came the near-fatal Hookipa Beach accident. Even so, Korzits was determined to keep her dreams alive. She had a big incentive: knowing that no Israeli woman had won an Olympic medal since Yael Arad won her country’s first medal, silver, for judo, at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.
Not knowing day to day whether she could even marshal the strength and energy to windsurf, Korzits set her sights on the 2012 London Olympics, but it seemed at best a faraway, almost unreachable dream.
When her year of rehabilitation ended, she began competing again. But in the July 2010 European Windsurfing Championships held in Sopot, Poland, she suffered a second almost deadly accident. This time a fellow competitor crashed into her, trapping her underwater, beneath her sail. One of the coaches, realizing she was unconscious, jumped into the water, separated her from the board and swam her to shore where he resuscitated her. Korzits downplays the second accident, suggesting that the media had exaggerated its severity.
Demonstrating that she had overcome the second accident, defying her doctors, she became the windsurfing world champion in Perth, Australia, in December 2011, again making history as the first Israeli, male or female, to win two world titles in any sport.
She was voted Israeli Sports Personality of the Year for 2011.
Three months later, she defended her world championship successfully in Cadiz, Spain, four months prior to the London Olympics. With those back-to-back world championships, she seemed a near shoo-in for Olympic gold and the pressure mounted.
“So lofty are the expectations from Korzits that anything but a medal this summer will be remembered as one of the biggest disappointments in Israeli Olympic history,” wrote The Jerusalem Post two weeks before the London Games started.
Unwilling to let the pressure impact her, Lee says only that she would do her best. “I didn’t feel the pressure. I know how to put myself in a bubble.” She knew what sports journalists were writing: “Everywhere in Israel I was called the Israeli hope.”
She did not sightsee in London prior to her windsurfing event. “I was really concentrating on getting a medal. I wasn’t interested in touring, drinking at night.”
She told herself: “Lee, you have a mission, you have to make this dream come true.”
In the early rounds of competition, the gold seemed within her grasp. After winning the eighth of the opening 11 races in her event, she was in second place overall. But the next day she slipped to fourth place. A third round would decide the medals.
To capture the gold, Korzits knew that she needed heavy winds behind her. “For my body, it’s much better if I have strong winds because I am big and strong,” and can exploit those winds. The forecast that morning was for good winds but by the time she reached the water the winds had died down.
After that third race, Lee came in sixth, missing out on a medal. She admits that she was not feeling well as the final race got under way. “I was not happy. I have some medical problems. But I tried my best. With all that I had, I tried.”
Whether she competes at another Olympic Games – the next will be in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – depends in part on whether windsurfing is dropped as an Olympic sport, as has been rumored, and the extreme sport of kite surfing replaces it. While Korzits has kite surfed, she acknowledges that it is far more dangerous than windsurfing – a stiff wind can pull the kite surfer up into the air with little control over how or where to land. She seems uncertain whether she wants to go after a kite surfing gold.
In the days following London, some Israelis expressed outrage that Israel had not won an Olympic medal. One politician said the Knesset should convene a special hearing to delve into the Olympics “failure.” Korzits welcomes the effort to analyze the problems in local sport and learn from them. Defending herself and her fellow Olympic athletes, she insists that she and her compatriots gave all that they could.
She acknowledges that Israel’s most talented athletes have in recent years pursued career paths that kept them from training and achieving in sports. “They go to the army, start their lives, try to make money because sport doesn’t pay that well.
You go to sport only if it’s your love and you are following your dream.” Israel, she notes, does not order its promising athletes to pursue sports at all other costs.
As for the future, she plans to study water-oriented occupational therapy as part of her undergraduate studies that she will begin in October. She has already begun writing a column for Yedioth Ahronoth, the mass circulation newspaper, on all sorts of subjects, not just sports.
“Right now I am going through a recovery and giving my body everything it needs. After I am good, I will go full power.”