Women who run… and bike...and swim

Social attitudes about women and sports are changing.

Nina Pekerman carries the Israeli flag over her head during the 2012 US Ironman Championship in New York City. (photo credit: ILANA KLEIN)
Nina Pekerman carries the Israeli flag over her head during the 2012 US Ironman Championship in New York City.
(photo credit: ILANA KLEIN)
In a summer subdued by the threat of rockets, the boardwalks lining the Tel Aviv coastline, on any balmy night, are filled with dozens of runners, joggers and walkers, moving along the path at various paces.
Those exercising are out in such force, in fact, you might have to take a quick step to the right or hop to the left, to dodge the onslaught of determined triathletes, marathoners, couch-potatoes-turned-milers and housewives-turned-joggers. There are the beeps of watches, the slip-slap of running shoes on pavement, the yells of coaches and personal trainers, and snippets of conversation between running partners – a cross-section of society, all out to get their evening sweat.
Inbar Zahavi, 28, a lawyer and Ironman competitor from Herzliya, regularly cycles for two hours in the morning.
“I take my training very seriously,” Zahavi says, explaining that it is as integral a part of her day as brushing her teeth in the morning.
Even the rockets of war will not stop her, she says, nonchalantly telling the story of another recent morning session.
“There were sirens when I was out on my run, so I went into a parking complex and waited,” she says, “I saw the interceptions [of the Iron Dome].”
Together with two friends, both 25 – Cid Carver, also an Ironman competitor originally from Cleveland, and Aviva Gat, a marathoner who grew up in Los Angeles – she sits down to talk a little about what it is that motivates them to run.
“I began running around the time I was in the army,” Zahavi remembers. “I was always good at it, but I never did anything with it. Gym was just easy for me in school.”
Her brown curly hair up in a bun, she sits on the edge of the steps, her arms around her knees. “So then I decided to start running, and after the army I did my first marathon in Barcelona. After my second marathon, I wanted to enrich my world of sport, and I began doing triathlons and Ironmans.”
Triathlons are comprised of a 1.5K swim, 40K bike and a 10K run, while Ironmans are a 3.9K swim, 180K bike and 42.2K run. Of course, there are also half-Ironmans, and sprint triathlons (as the name would suggest, a shorter version of its older brother). Israman Eilat is ranked among the 10 most difficult Ironman competitions internationally, and the formidable course has earned the respect of athletes from around the world.
Carver’s story started with a year of college cross-country, but began in earnest with a run from her Florentin hostel to Tel Aviv’s Dolphinarium, shortly after making aliya in 2011. “It was just a few kilometers,” she says, “and I had this friend who introduced me to this girl who was running around 5K like me.
We started training together for the Tel Aviv half-marathon, and we held each other accountable.”
The logical progression from there, Carver laughs, was the Israman half. “I was like, half-marathon, half-Ironman...”
She started training on a mountain bike, riding in running shoes. “Then someone said to me, ‘You can’t train like that – you need a road bike, you need cycling shoes.’” Then there is Gat. The daughter of ultra-marathoners, her parents actually met at a race, and her older brother also runs ultras. In college she took up running, and caught the marathon bug. “Running was something I grew up with,” she says.
Proudly showing off the blue shirt of the charity she represented, Gat talks about the New York Marathon – her first race, in 2009 – for which she trained on her summer break from college. “A lot of my training in the first marathon was dinner-table conversations with my parents debating how I should train, and my brother would chime in… When I was running, my dad would bike next to me and carry snacks and water.”
AMIT NE’EMAN is a distance runner, one of the country’s former greats, and coach to leading competitors – including former Israeli marathon champion Nili Abramski, and son Noam, a 3,000-meter steeplechase national champion.
In a late-evening phone call, he talks about the social evolution of running within Israeli society, noting that while the US had Title IX (a 1972 educational amendment guaranteeing equal access regardless of sex to all federally funded activities, including sports) to help move things forward, things usually arrived in Israel “a little delayed, in comparison to what happens in the US.”
“In the last years of the ’80s, and in the ’90s and possibly the start of the 2000s, maybe 10 percent of the athletes were women,” Ne’eman explains. “Then it started to go up – to around 20%, sometimes more, sometimes less – but there are more runners today than 10 years ago, and in general there are more women running now.”
While he says women are not necessarily competing on a high level, mainstream running, he notes, “has really opened up.”
There are the joggers, Ne’eman says, with some running for fun and others for health. “And there are always those who are more ‘capable’ in this area and who look at it as boys do, in a more professional manner.”
The country may not have Title IX, but it does have Athena, the national project advancing women’s sports in Israel. Omrit Yanilov Edden, a former track and field athlete herself, is executive director; she explains that sports are integral to a young girl’s development, and to the health of society as a whole.
“Doing sports adds to the legitimacy of women doing competitive sports. And regardless of the platform in which a woman does sports, when a young girl participates, it in essence changes the social attitude.”
While the main goal of Athena is to promote women’s sports – especially on the competitive level – Yanilov Edden says the organization knows that in order for this to happen, women’s participation in sports must become a part of the social fabric on the most basic level. In that vein, Athena is sponsor of the Athena Goes Far sports “happening,” held in the spring and attracting thousands of participants each year.
“If mothers do sports and run... they are the audience that we are in essence looking for... These women will suddenly look at their daughters as being capable, and this capability is an issue that is very, very significant.”
Zehava Shmueli, 59, is founder and coach of Ramat Hasharon Runners, a former Israeli marathon champion and the country’s representative in the Women’s Marathon at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, where she placed 30th. She started running competitively in school at a time when “there were not a lot of girls,” but ended up marrying, having children and returning to running at a later age.
“It was not accepted then for a woman to run, especially not a woman with children,” Shmueli explains.
“I was a sort of ambassador,” she says, discussing how she was chosen to carry the Israeli flag at the ’84 Olympics opening processional.
“I was a symbol for them – I was married and a mother, and a marathon runner.”
And while Shmueli notes that the “logistics” behind being a runner are easier than that of other sports, and Ne’eman agrees – “You don’t need equipment or a special place to train” – the fact that running is so accessible to the masses makes it more competitive and harder to stand out. There has yet to be a Yael Aradstyle runner in Israel, and it is interesting to note why.
Former competitior Yanilov Edden maintains that while judo is an “unmeasurable” sport, track and field and other “measurable” sports such as swimming occupy a different level as far as international accomplishments are concerned. When it comes to such sports, “Israel is still ‘over there,’” she explains.
“In order for the country to move forward to that place, Israel’s infrastructure in terms of the number of athletes needs to be broader. The issue of finding talent needs to be integrated into an organized program, and this is something the country is now working on… and the issue of the coaches is still lagging, we still do not have coaches on that level in Israel.”
The spokesman for the Israeli Athletic Association agrees. Says Oren Bukstein, “When you look at the Israeli women who did reach the highest international level, notice that it is in fields like judo and sailing, which are relatively very, very small fields; you cannot compare judo to track.”
And while Bukstein notes that Israel has successfully medaled in these less populated fields, he also points out that people forget the 1976 Montreal Summer Olympics.
“Esther Roth-Shahamorov finished in sixth place in the 100-meter hurdle finals. Ask anyone who understands a little about sports and they will tell you that sixth place in Olympic track and field is much more difficult to achieve than a medal in other Olympic sports.”
Roth-Shahamorov was the country’s pride and joy at the 1972 Munich Olympics (from which the Israeli team withdrew following the Black September attacks) and the 1976 Games in Montreal. But she says it was coming off 1970’s Asian Games that her whole life changed.
“I had no privacy – people on the street would stop me. In the paper, they wrote about what I was doing, how I was training. I was national property,” she remembers.
“I would have just checked into a hotel and walked up to my room – having just been assigned my room number – and immediately the phone would start ringing with reporters from Israel.”
Even so, Roth-Shahamorov says, she went to Munich wearing a shirt from Tel Aviv’s Carmel Market, “and my first training shoes were used shoes that my coach Amitzur [Shapira, killed in Munich] gave me, which had belonged to another athlete.”
When she started to experience international success, Roth-Shahamorov says, she was given the opportunity to go to training camps at the Wingate Institute, but in those days, no one had ever heard of sponsorships.
“You might have been awarded a training scholarship once a year, but you could not rely on them.”
And while she laments the country’s lack of a “sports culture,” Roth-Shahamorov says things are much better today than during the days she was competing.
“You need to be good and of Olympic criteria, and then they will help you.” She mentions judo and sailing, then adds, “but if it is not Olympic, there is nothing to talk about.”
TODAY, HOW does a female Israeli athlete who competes outside an Olympic sport take herself to the highest levels of international competition? It is not easy. Just ask Nina Pekerman, 36, the only professional Ironman in Israel and holder of several titles, including winner of the 2005 Maccabiah Games triathlon, second-place winner of the 30-34 women’s age group at the 2011 Ironman World Championships, first place in her age group at the 2011 European Ironman Championships, and first woman overall in the 2014 Israman Negev.
She says the sponsors who give her the funding and equipment necessary to focus on her training are integral to moving forward. “The issue of sponsors is always hard, in Israel especially,” Pekerman says. “To find the support, I always had to do a lot of work. For example, the Israel Cycling Federation paid for me to go to the world biking championships in 2003, but for my coach I had to find other sponsorship.”
Pekerman adds that to qualify for international championship competition, an athlete must earn a certain number of points in events held throughout the year – and without sponsorship, it is just not possible to attend the necessary events. “What I know for sure is that if I had the support today, I could place higher. I missed a season because I couldn’t raise the money. The fact is I knew I could be the world champion at age 33-34,” she says. “No one believed it and I knew it, and I know today that I can do even more.”
And Pekerman says she also knows she has paid a big price to go after her dreams. At the start of her career she accepted a professional contract with an Italian cycling team, but cut it short to rush back to Israel after her mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer.
Today, looking backwards and forwards, she has this to say: “It is very hard to find the time, and as we get older, to my sorrow, personal life is in second place. I hope that I will invest in it later, the way that I invest in sports, and then I know I will succeed,” she explains.
“There is a type of aloneness, it has a price. You cannot go out to socialize, because you get up early to train.”
She talks about family and children. “I wish I could to take a break and come back, but it is too late at this point to have a baby and continue. If I were 20 maybe I could do this, but now I say, ‘OK, another year.’ It’s a very heavy price to pay because you can’t live the same life, but for every big success there is a price.”
It is an issue that people broach with her quite frequently.
“They say, ‘Enough, how long can you continue?’ The comments come from all directions, all the time. I think it is a question for any woman at my age, something that even a non-athlete would be asked.”
And it is an issue with which other women who do competitive sports can relate. Shmueli, the Israeli marathon champion who took time off from running to marry and raise children, mentions that one of the issues she found herself dealing with upon returning to competition was “finding a caretaker for the children.”
And even those who compete on a less professional level find themselves wrestling with the issue of personal life vs training commitments. Says Zahavi, “When I trained for the Ironman and I was doing a [law] internship, I woke at 4 a.m. to finish 30 km. by 7 a.m. and shower and be at the office. I would work till 7, 7:30 p.m. It turns life into sleep, work and some time with the husband. Training quickly became a major part of my life,” she says, laughing as she adds her husband “still hasn’t left her.”
But then comes the telling sentence: “He bicycles, so that really helps – we ride together.”
This harks back to Yanilov Edden’s comments regarding social change. “The people who set the tone and make the decisions of what activities children do are the mother and father. Little girls do not decide alone to go to dance, piano, volleyball or track. The parents decide to give them legitimacy, or they say to their daughter, ‘No, no, no – you are a girl, sports are not important.’ “But if the mother... does physical activity for leisure or for competition, they are the audience for changing the social attitude.”