Aiming high

In Danielle Frenkel, Israeli athletics has not only a real prospect for an Olympic final in London, but also the poster girl it needs for a better future.

Danielle Frenkel 521 (photo credit: Israel Athletics Association)
Danielle Frenkel 521
(photo credit: Israel Athletics Association)
To say that Israeli athletics needs Danielle Frenkel would be the understatement of the year. With the London Games just one year away, Frenkel is a bright light illuminating the otherwise doom and gloom of local athletics, giving Israelis something to look forward to in the showcase Olympic sport.
The consistent deterioration in Israeli athletics over the past decade hit a low with the retirement of two-time pole vault European champion Alex Averbukh in 2009 – and there has been little to cheer about since.
However, in the 23-year-old Frenkel, Israeli athletics not only has a real prospect for an Olympic final in London, but also the poster girl it needs for a better future.
Next month, Frenkel can secure her place in the 2012 Games by finishing in the top 16 in the World Championships in Daegu, South Korea, and she has every intention of doing so while also improving her Israeli record of 1.94 meters.
“I have planned my entire season around the World Championships, and I hope I can set a personal best and meet the criteria,” said Frenkel, who usually comes up with her best at the major events, reaching the finals of both the outdoor and indoor European Championship over the past year.
“I arrive at the competitions in such excellent physical shape that I refuse to let myself down by failing mentally,” she adds.
What has made Frenkel’s success all the more impressive is the fact that it came virtually out of nowhere.
Less than five years ago, she was still pursuing her dream of becoming a professional dancer after spending years with the Bat Dor Dance Company.
However, while watching the Israeli athletics championships from the stands four years ago, she felt she had to give high jumping a serious shot, having given it up several years earlier.
So Frenkel and coach Anatoly Shafran set out a methodical program aimed at turning her into a world-class jumper – and she made amazing progress.
After clearing just 1.69 m. in 2007, Frenkel improved her personal best by six centimeters in each of the next two years, jumping 1.81 m.
in 2009.
Her hard work with Shafran really began to pay dividends last year, with Frenkel improving her personal best by a massive 11 centimeters, setting the outdoor Israeli record at 1.92 m. in Barcelona last July at the European Athletics Championship.
She then took the Israeli indoor record to 1.94 m. on her way to a fourth-place finish at the European indoor athletics championships in Paris in March.
It has, however, been far from plain sailing for Frenkel.
“There was one stage when I struggled to improve on 1.75 m.,” she said. “I had just finished my army service and decided to go away to Central America for four months. Of course everyone told me that this was a killer blow to my athletics career, as usually athletes don’t take more than one month off.
“But when I was there,” she said, “I was telling people that I was a high jumper, and they were so enthusiastic about it that it gave me a lot of motivation.
“Later that year, I cleared 1.81 m., and in 2010 I improved my personal best even further.”
Frenkel is confident of setting a new national record in 2011, but knows it is unrealistic to expect a similar improvement to last year’s.
“When you reach the heights I have reached, it becomes much more difficult to make significant improvements,” she said. “But I feel that 1.95 m. is definitely possible, and that is my goal.”
Up until two years ago, Frenkel was also nurturing a budding modeling career; however, she is now completely committed to her athletics dreams.
“In the morning of the Israeli championships two years ago, I had a photo shoot and the competition didn’t go well for me, so I decided at that moment to completely focus on training,” she said.
“I don’t rule out doing it again in the future, but I’m not modeling now because I have no time. I train a lot, and I need my rest. I’d rather invest my time in sport.”
Frenkel credits much of her success to coach Shafran’s work, and their special relationship was why she declined a scholarship offer from the University of Illinois last year.
“I declined the scholarship for two reasons,” she elaborated. “The first was my relationship with my boyfriend. I wanted to stay in Israel with him.
“The second and main reason was the fact that I made so much progress in my jumping career and set the criteria needed to be a part of Culture and Sports Minister Limor Livnat’s Professionalism Project.
“I realized that I wouldn’t find a coach like the one I have here,” she said. “I believe in my coach so much and I know that he is the only one who can get me to the Olympics.
“We are like family,” she went on. “I train with him every day, and it is a very personal training session. He is not only a coach, but also a psychologist.
“What characterizes him is his unrelenting style of work. Sometimes I get tired, and he tells me that I have more energy in my legs. He sometimes knows my body better than I do. He never rests on his laurels.”
While she declined an offer to get a degree in the US, Frenkel is already thinking of life after sport, studying law and business management at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya.
“In the US, almost all athletes have a degree, including those at the highest level,” she said. “It is really a shame that this doesn’t happen in Israel as well. I don’t want to find myself at an advanced age without a degree.
“If Tyson Gay [former 100 m. and 200 m.
world champion] can do a degree while being an athlete, so can I.”
As a member of the Professionalism Project, Frenkel has no complaints regarding the financial support she gets from the sporting establishment.
However, she has no illusions regarding the overall state of Israeli athletics and believes matters will significantly improve only when more funding is directed toward the sport.
“I get support from the Professionalism Project as well as from the Olympic Committee of Israel,” she said. “This gives me the peace of mind to focus on training – which is not something that can be taken for granted, especially in athletics, which keeps having its budget cut.
“There will always be people who criticize us,” Frenkel says. “That’s just the way it is.
“The Israeli Athletics Association doesn’t have the budget it needs. You can’t expect people to take money out of their own pockets. The IAA’s budget was slashed this year, and if people have any complaints, they should be directed toward those who decided on this budget.
“Two years ago, no one even considered me an Olympic potential. I was one of those athletes who needed the IAA’s support, and couldn’t get it because the association didn’t have the budget.”
Of course, that is no longer the case for Frenkel, who, thanks to her meteoric rise, can now concentrate on realizing her sporting dreams – the biggest of which is participating in the Olympic Games.
“Every time I think about doing one fewer stomach crunch, I think to myself: This crunch could cost me the extra centimeter I need in my jump,” she said. “My big dream is to take part in the Olympics. That is every athlete’s dream. Every time I’m in the stadium, I think of this.
“I’m desperate to be there.”