Olympics: Double-edged foil

For Delila Hatuel, being born into a fencing family was both a gift and a burden.

Delila Hatuel 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Delila Hatuel 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The sun was beating down on Acre's seaside promenade, the waves came crashing in against its wall and a bulldozer was performing palm tree implants, heaving the half-grown trunks high in the air before laying them softly into holes in the soil. "He plowed the soil, he cultivated the land," Delila Hatuel says admiringly of her father, Haim, who 40 years ago spawned a national fencing dynasty that over the years has flowered and branched out. Haim's younger brother Yitzhak competed in the 1984 Olympic Games, while his sister Lydia, a 16-time national champion, represented Israel in three Olympic Games. Now, his daughter Delila, ranked 11th in the world, is preparing for this summer's Olympics in Beijing. Two hundred years after the wall fencing in the city fended off Napoleon's siege, it's quite appropriate that a fencing dynasty has sprouted in Acre. Its name derived from the Latin word for defense, fencing is one of the four oldest Olympic sports. For Haim Hatuel, it was a natural transition. Ambling through a fair offering employment to those recently released from the IDF, he caught the eye of a fencing coach. Having dabbled in boxing and acrobatics in Morocco, where he was born before coming here with his family in the 1960s, he was a natural, as was the rest of his family. But while they excelled in competition, he never got a chance to compete abroad. Coaching was his calling, and Acre's mayor recognized as much when he recently built a gym, the Olympic Fencing Center, where Haim, Lydia and Delila train children - Jewish and Arab, sabras and new immigrants - daily. Naturally, his children, nephews and nieces grew up at the gym. "I was born here," Delila says by way of illustration. "They would bring me here at the age of zero." Haim's wife, who took up fencing herself, would breast-feed her between practices. It seemed to be only a matter of time before a member of the next generation would emerge to carry on the family legacy. But Haim's eldest daughters, Hila and Ma'ayan, quit the sport as teenagers. For Haim, as for his wife, the third child would prove to be the charm. Enamored with Paramount Pictures' 1949 classic Samson and Delilah, she had wanted to name her daughter after the femme fatale protagonist played by Hedy Lamarr, but she forgot - twice. That Delila herself was less than thrilled with her name was only as predictable as other children's taunting. It was only after reading the Hebrew novel Hagar at 18 that, struck by the parallels between the two biblical heroines, she came to appreciate the uniqueness of her name. Like Hagar, Delila too ran away to the desert upon being discharged from the army. While her father launched his career immediately after being released, Delila felt an urge to break free. "It was my adolescent rebellion, at 20," she says, noting the irony. IF FENCING is martial art, Delila clearly places the emphasis on the art more than on its martial nature. She sees fencing as a form of conversation, a well-won fight being no more than a carefully-constructed argument. To her mind, it is no coincidence that music rivals fencing as the family avocation, sometimes even superseding it as a vocation: When her sister Ma'ayan quit fencing, it was to go into the hip-hop industry. The clash of foils is music to her ears, the measured movement of her feet along the piste - the 1.5-meter to two-meter wide strip upon which she parries, "a very narrow bridge" - akin to a pianist's hands gliding over the keys, each artist fastidiously set to his own particular beat. Lured by the siren song of Eilat, Delila happily settled down with her sister, free of the army and free of the drudgery of daily training, thoroughly enjoying the random jobs she held and the carefree lifestyle she led. "It was nice having a normal life," she recalls, "I didn't have to sweat, I had fun." She worked in entertainment, in sales, waiting tables, whiling away three years bathing in the sun and basking in her freedom. Until, as the 2004 Olympic Games drew near, she began feeling an itch. "I didn't feel whole," she says. Lying in bed on the night of Yom Kippur in 2003, leafing through a magazine, she came across pictures of Israeli Olympians who had qualified for the 2004 games in Athens. Thus, Yom Kippur became a day of unexpected personal reckoning. She suddenly realized that it was fencing that was itching her, that freedom was a double-edged foil. "What am I doing here?" she asked herself. After three years of fun and games, having recently lost her boyfriend followed by her job, sports were a reassuring reminder of the past, "something to latch on to." Next came pangs of regret, remorse over the talent she squandered, the years of work her father had put in, gone to waste. She cried herself to sleep, thinking, "What have I done? I should be there. What was I thinking? Eilat is a waste of time. I'm a nothing, I could do something with my life." The following morning, she remembers vividly, she called her father and announced her comeback. For three long years her father had called her, day after day, pestering her to return to the sport. She thought he was wasting his time, but didn't want to offend him. It never occurred to her, though, during two grueling years of training accompanied by frustrating results that she was wasting her time. Looking back on her decision today, on the baby steps she had to take, one at a time, Delila suddenly realizes, "It's impossible! I have no idea how I did it. I don't know what I was thinking." Only this past year has her hard work begun to pay off. The turning point came a year ago during a tournament in China, when she beat the reigning Olympic champion en route to a silver medal. Recently, people have been asking her about her future, but to her the world is flat - there is nothing beyond China on the horizon. "I have three months to live," she exclaims, smiling, "and then a new life begins." If she can replicate last year's feat this summer, her foil will not only represent a bona-fide Israeli medal hope, it could well conduct a rendering of "Hatikva."