Surf’s up! Israelis catching the wave to the 2020 Olympic Games

Israel’s boom in surfing has made the sport almost as popular as soccer, and is putting some young competitors on the path to the 2020 Olympic Games.

Former Israeli surfing open division champion Yoni Klein (photo credit: NICK O’BRIEN)
Former Israeli surfing open division champion Yoni Klein
(photo credit: NICK O’BRIEN)
In recent years the surfing scene in Israel has grown significantly. All across the country, you can see surfers trying to catch a good wave or children taking part in one of many surfing camps offered.
Former Israeli surfing open division champion Yoni Klein has been surfing for 20 years. Today, he competes and trains abroad. Klein, 27, from Tel Aviv, compares the beach to a tennis court.
“No wave is the same and no beach is the same. Imagine if each tennis court was different from another,” he says. “Apart from that, some of the best waves in the world are in very remote locations such as Indonesia, Fiji or Hawaii, so travel becomes a major part of the surfing lifestyle.” Without a sponsor, Klein adds, surfing can become a very expensive sport, and that is why many surfers enjoy the financial backing of a surfing brand.
"On a surf trip, when the waves are good, I'll wake up at 5:30 a.m. Then I will warm up, surf for three hours, eat, rest for an hour and then do it all over again, until I stretch and relax my muscles in the evening," Klein says.
He tries to incorporate surfing into his daily life, and he includes at least one hour of a different sporting activity, such as swimming or running, into his routine.
Surfing is mostly based on arm muscle and core conditioning, so they are usually the most important body parts for a surfer to gain control of on the surfboard.
(photo credit: ORR WHARTMAN)(photo credit: ORR WHARTMAN)
“Because you are paddling a lot against the waves and you have to catch waves,” Klein says, and adds, “once you are on the wave, it's your entire body that is active.”
When speaking with him about the surf scene in Israel, Klein says he has noticed a change.
“We’ve been getting visits from top athletes from around the world coming to explore our coastline. There has been a trend of increasing international surf media covering Israel.”
One of the important governing bodies of surfing is the World Surfing League.
The WSL is the global governing body for the men's and women's Championship Tour, Qualifying Series, Junior Tour, Big Wave Tour, Longboard Tour, and specialty events.
In January, the WSL hosted its first ever event here in Israel, a series event called Pro Netanya.
The event featured several of the top men and women surfers in the world, showcasing their talents on the local waves.
“We were aware that there are many other good waves in Israel, but as always, local support from the communities and public authorities are important, and in this particular case, Netanya was an obvious choice,” says Nicolas Leroy, a member of WSL Europe. “Netanya has everything [necessary] to be a great surfing destination, including competitive surfing,” he adds.
According to Leroy, the conditions here in Israel are great for future generations wishing to become great surfers.
“My personal point of view is that the future is bright! There were many young surfers who entered the event in Netanya, both male and female, and they showed great potential. From what we have also seen while exploring the nearby areas, both up and down the coast, it seems there are a lot of keen surfers in the country,” he adds.
Lior Zamir, Israeli Surfing Association’s marketing and event manager, says that although there are about 800 registered members in the Israeli association, the number of people surfing in the country is larger.
“The surfing community in Israel is around 300,000,” he says.
There are about 10 events a year organized by the association. “The Israeli Surfing Association runs several events throughout the year for juniors, from age 10 to 18, and for pro surfers.”
Ariel Samin and Romi Golan are both members of Israel's youth national surfing team.
Romi Golan, a member of Israel’s youth national surfing team (photo credit: ISA)Romi Golan, a member of Israel’s youth national surfing team (photo credit: ISA)
Samin, 17, from Haifa, is Israel's 2015 under-18 surfing champion.
“I started when I was about 11. I came to the beach with my dad and my brother and spent as much time as I could in the water,” he says.
Samin said that when competing for an event, he wakes up early and enters the water around 5 a.m. Similar to Klein, Samin also has a routine of training in the water for several hours, eating and then going back into the waves.
Like Klein, both Samin and Golan have sponsors assisting them with equipment and travel expenses.
“When you surf, there is a feeling you get; it is just you being one with nature,” says Samin. “You are one with yourself; it's really amazing.”
Golan, 17, from Ein Vered, a moshav not far from Netanya, started her surfing experience at Gal Yam's Surf Club in Poleg. At first, her journey was not as smooth as Samin's.
“I remember I entered the water, and five minutes later I came out running to my mom crying and screaming, ‘I don't want to go back in,’” says Golan, saying she was 10 years old at the time. Her mom decided she might not belong in the water, and they headed back home.
Afterwards, her mom spoke with her dad, who insisted that Golan give it a second chance. “Don’t take her back home,” her father said, “until she learns how to surf.”
Better prepared this time, Golan entered the water for a second try, and it’s a lucky thing she did, “It was from that moment on that I fell in love with the water. Ever since that day, I have been involved in surfing.”
She says she owes a great deal of her surfing ability to the camps and training sessions in which she took part.
“As soon as you are in the water and on a wave, there is no explanation [for] how high the rush is. Only surfers know the feeling.”
Golan also faces an additional challenge.
Being a female surfer in a sport predominately still featuring male competitors, she tries to get the word out on how important it is for girls to take part in surfing as well.
“First of all, seeing me in the water is great exposure. When people ask me if girls surf as well as boys, I tell them, of course they do, girls surf better than boys!” Another challenge for the teenage surfers is finding time to surf while still attending high school. Samin says that combining school with surfing is actually very acceptable where he is studying.
“Fortunately for me, my school is very supportive of my surfing schedule. On days when there are waves, they allow me to go out and practice, and when there is a tournament abroad, I am given the okay to fly.”
About the surfer’s daily routine, former champion Klein says, “While we have good trainers and good gyms, sometimes there can be no waves for almost a month.”
He says that spending as much time as you can in the water is more important than what you think you know about surfing theoretically. Reading about it won't make you a better surfer.
“Pulling into the barrel [the inside of a hollow wave] and coming out clean on the other side is the ultimate experience in surfing,” he adds. “Surfing has become very progressive, tricks can be done in the waves like powerful turns and hacks [huge waves], or above the wave, using the wave as a ramp to try and launch crazy spins and flips in the air, landing back into the wave.”
Golan sums up her lifestyle with advice for the novice surfer.
“Don't give up. There will always be setbacks, especially in the beginning and all through the learning curve. You need to know how to overcome them and keep surfing.”
SAAR BEN-SIMHON, 46, from Haifa, is the manager of Surf Club in Haifa, one of many clubs that exist in Israel.
He says that in the past, when he had just started learning how to surf, surfing was a very rare sight in the country.
“In 1982, surfing was more of a combination between the talent of how to surf and the motivation not to give up.”
Today, surfing has become more of a mainstream activity for everyone, almost as popular as playing basketball or soccer, especially with the youth. “We offer surfing camps during the holidays, especially in the summer, and surfing classes year round,” says Ben-Simhon.
There are about 200 surfers, some as young as six, who take part in the different Haifa Surf Club activities on a weekly basis.
A guide and some pupils at Haifa’s Surf Club (photo credit: ORR WHARTMAN)A guide and some pupils at Haifa’s Surf Club (photo credit: ORR WHARTMAN)
Samin, who trains with the Haifa Surf Club, says there are many clubs in Israel that can help a novice surfer advance and find his or her way.
“[Only] 10% or 20% of the kids taking part in the different surfing camps really continue training after camps are over, and that's a shame.”
According to the ISA, in recent years, more than 50,000 children have taken part in the surfing camps offered every summer.
Ben-Simhon stresses how as a sport, the experience of surfing is not about being competitive, but is rather more naturalistic and holistic practice.
“It is a sport which takes place out in nature with the water. These qualities help the balance of the body and energy, which makes for good health. When a child enters the water, it is a unique experience.”
In addition, Ben-Simhon has noticed that surfing helps many children with ADHD or ADD, who are attracted to the sport as well.
“They cope with surfing well and you can see them succeeding constantly.”
Yaron Ben, 40, from Rishon Lezion, founded and manages one of Israel's leading online surfing communities, called Secret Spot. The online forum discusses virtually anything related to the surfing world.
“The level of exposure to this sport has risen a lot,” says Ben. “In the past, there wasn't such a thing as surfing camps. These camps have appeared only in recent years.”
But it’s not just the increasing involvement of the youth taking part in surfing which has changed drastically.
“In the past, if you wanted to know if there were enough waves to go out and surf, you had to go to the beach and see for yourself if the beach is good for surfing,” says Ben. “Today, someone eating dinner can check if there is enough wind for surfing by simply going on the Internet and looking at one of the many beach cameras available online.”
Yet, Ben-Simhon mentions there is an inequality to the coverage being given to surfing when compared to other, more popular sports.
“The coverage of surfing here in Israel is neglected and hardly exists.”
Ben also fears that in a small country like Israel, with a limited shoreline, the increased number of surfers might become a problem.
“There are not enough appropriately designated beaches for surfing, or enough lifeguards in the different locations,” warns Ben-Simhon.
He hopes that with the recent announcement from the International Olympic Committee, which revealed the addition of surfing as an Olympic sport in the 2020 games, the level of media exposure will grow as well.
“When Gal Fridman won an Olympic gold medal [in the 2004 Athens Olympics], the media coverage of the achievement was very high.”
But already today, Ben-Simhon says there are many more surfers out in the water than wind-surfers.
Former chairman of the ISA Yossi Zamir hopes that the sport will get more funding from the Sports Authority of Israel and the Israel Sports Betting Board.
“Our [ISA’s] yearly budget stands at around NIS 200,000 a year. I really hope we will get a larger budget now that we are officially an Olympic sport.”
Zamir definitely sees a promising future for the young surfers from today’s youth teams, and believes they might even be on the path to representing Israel in the 2020 and 2024 Olympic Games.