Opening the women’s wrestling floodgates

Ilana Kratysh, who won Israel’s first medal at the inaugural European Games last month, is blazing a trail in an underdeveloped sport.

Ilana Kratysh
Five years ago, Ilana Kratysh’s sporting career reached a crossroads.
She had taken up judo at age five, but a combination of circumstances led her to reconsider her future in the sport. Ultimately, she decided to give wrestling a go.
That decision changed her life, and may well result in her becoming an Olympic medalist.
Women’s wrestling was virtually nonexistent in Israel at the time, but that didn’t deter Kratysh – who was desperate to find an outlet for her sporting dreams.
She won a medal in her first international competition and hasn’t looked back since. Kratysh is now among Israel’s top candidates for a medal at the Rio 2016 Olympics next summer after claiming a silver in the European Games in Baku, Azerbaijan, last month.
It was her first major competition after overcoming a potentially devastating knee injury that kept her out of action for 10 months.
Kratysh won Israel’s first medal at the inaugural European Games, opening the floodgates, with the blueand- white delegation eventually finishing with 12 medals, including two golds.
“Anyone who worked with me can tell you that I really believed I was going to return with a medal,” Kratysh told Metro. “They thought I was crazy and couldn’t understand how I could think that. But I never stopped believing that I was going to win a medal – and not just any medal, I really wanted a gold. I’m a little disappointed that I didn’t take a gold, but ultimately I’m pleased that I managed to claim a medal.”
The fact that Kratysh can somehow feel disappointed at “only” winning a silver medal after such a serious injury perhaps best epitomizes her drive and ambition to excel at all costs.
Kratysh, who will celebrate her 25th birthday next week, won a silver in the women’s 69kg freestyle competition in Baku, defeating the London 2012 Olympic champion and outgoing European champion, Natalia Vorobeva of Russia, in the semi-finals. With the European Games also acting as this year’s European Wrestling Championships, Kratysh actually took her third straight medal in the continental showcase, claiming silver in 2013 and 2014 as well.
“I started with judo as my father is a judo coach, and my brother was also involved in the sport,” recounted Kratysh, who was born in Haifa on the day her family arrived in Israel from Russia, with her mother almost giving birth on the plane. “It was a combination of things that brought me to leave judo. I had just started my army service and struggled with injuries, and there was also a change in the rules of judo."
“So at the age of 20 I decided I wanted to try something new, and the Israel Wrestling Association welcomed me with open arms. I took a medal in my first competition without really knowing the rules, so I realized I was onto something good.”
Kratysh said the injury proved to be a blessing in disguise.
“The injury wasn’t a crisis at all; I think it actually helped me focus on the mental side, and I ended up benefiting from my time away from the sport,” she explained. “I have no doubt that I returned a lot stronger than I was before the injury. I also returned with a greater hunger to succeed and learned to appreciate what I have.”
Kratysh does much of her training abroad, having practiced in Ukraine for a couple of years before working for two years under Victor Zilberman, a Canadian Olympic wrestling coach at the Montreal YMHA Wrestling Club.
“Women’s wrestling is very undeveloped in Israel. The association really tries hard, but that is still not enough to reach a high level,” asserted Kratysh. “I realized that I had no choice but to train abroad, far from my family and friends, if I wanted to progress."
“I have learned to live with traveling alone,” she added. “It was initially difficult, but I love what I do so much that I’m willing to do anything to succeed – and this is one of the sacrifices I have to make.”
Kratysh has to manage with a stipend of just NIS 6,000 a month, and also needs to choose cheaper training venues due to their cost. She is thankful for all the support she receives from the wrestling association and the Olympic Committee of Israel, but is desperately searching for a corporate sponsor that will allow her to focus on her sport without worrying about money.
Kratysh is hoping her success can help advance women’s wrestling in Israel so that future generations don’t encounter similar problems.
“I have a message for all the young girls who wrestle,” Kratysh emphasized. “I know what you are going through because of the lack of popularity of this sport. A lot of people say that this is a sport for boys, but I really don’t agree with that. It is important to me that these girls continue to fight and don’t give up on their dreams.”
Kratysh’s next goal will be September’s World Championships in Las Vegas, where she can book her place at next summer’s Olympics. A place among the top five in Las Vegas will secure her place in Rio and save her the stress of waiting until next year to qualify for the Olympics.
“My focus at the moment is the preparations for the championships. I’m not thinking about what medal I might win, but focusing on working as hard as I can,” she said. “Of course my dream is to not only participate in the Olympics, but to also win a medal.
I want to be an Olympic champion, but there is still a very long time to go and so much to overcome on the way that I’m taking it one step at a time.”