Destination: London

Arik Ze'evi's recent gold in the World Cup showed more signs of him regaining his form.

Arik Zeevi 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Arik Zeevi 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Arik Ze'evi knows about resilience - he's recovered from injuries throughout his career, and his recent taking of the gold medal in the World Cup tournament in Warsaw showed more signs of his regaining the form that earned him an Olympic bronze medal at the 2004 games in Athens, before disappointing fans by not qualifying for one at Beijing in 2008. But when The Jerusalem Post caught up with him after he won five straight victories in the Warsaw tournament, four by ippon (knockout), he was his usual modest but determined self. "I saw at the end that he was getting tired and managed to beat him with an ippon. It was very satisfying to score a victory right at the very end," says Ze'evi. While still not fully recovered from both injuries and the disappointment of Beijing, he says: "I feel better than I did before, but I still don't think I've gotten back to where I was 100 percent. There are still many things that I have to work on, but I know I'm on the right path. I felt my self-confidence coming back." The victory also assured him his comeback will continue in the European Championships in Georgia next month. Despite not feeling well and his elbow injury still bothering him, he decided to compete. "I wanted to show that I could be at my best, I told myself the result wasn't important, the most important thing was to put up a good fight." Despite losing his personal trainer, Alex Ashkenazi, whom the Israel Olympic Committee decided would no longer train the team, Ze'evi is determined to push on. "There really isn't much I can do... It's their way of trying to break me or get me to quit, but they won't succeed and I'll try to do my best. It just bothers me that a coach who did so much to raise the level of the sport here suddenly is being tossed out of the Olympic plans. I think it's not really a wise move." Receiving the bronze medal in Athens in 2004 "was the most moving moment in my career - the feeling was that no matter what else, I've already done something great." The victory was made sweeter by the fact that it happened on the anniversary of the slaying of the Israeli Olympic athletes in Munich in 1972. The man who had all of Israel on its feet that day still gets stopped on the street by admirers, who slap him on the back and smile as they pass by. "It's nice to know that people are still following me and I'm not alone in the battle," he says. "The hardest thing about our sport is that you have only once a year or once every four years to show what you can do, and if you don't succeed, then people think you've accomplished nothing." THAT'S EXACTLY what happened to Ze'evi in Beijing, where he lost out to Brazil's Luciano Correa, disappointing the 1,500 Israeli fans in the auditorium and millions of Israelis pulling for him at home. "I can tell you that I felt a lot more pressure in Athens. In Beijing less, but there were other reasons why I didn't succeed. I got to the Olympic village two weeks before the tournament began, and I think I began my mental preparation too soon. I stayed there two weeks, and I was mentally tired when the big match came." But the humble grappler said in a phone interview that when he returned home, he found "people appreciated the fact that I came out and said I wasn't good and didn't deserve to win. Everyone fails once in a while in their career." Ze'evi, who carried the Israeli flag into the Athens Olympics, said that being in the Olympic village with all the athletes is an amazing experience. "When you go into the Olympic village and you see all the flags together, and in the dining room you see all kinds of people of different sizes - tall basketball players sitting next to tiny weightlifters, very tall women athletes sitting next to short little women gymnasts, it's something very special." Ze'evi, who admits was a bit mischievous as a kid and whose parents took him to the gym to get his ya-yas out, started out following in his brother Roni's footsteps in the sport ("you always try to imitate those around you"). He doesn't let the little things, like a painful elbow injury that occurred not too long ago, get him down. "You have to understand that injuries are part of it. I think of an injury like a loss in a competition. If I give in to it and retire, then it's like I've been injured twice - I let the injury hurt me and I let it make me retire. So I say to myself: 'If I can get over the injury and return to my normal capability, I've done something even better. And that give me strength.'" Then there's his illustrious past, the youngest Israeli to win a national judo championship, achieving the feat at 15. "It was at Tel Mond," he recalls excitedly. "I remember that I couldn't believe that I could possibly be champion at such a young age, and I made it into the final with the brother of Oren Smadja, who was a legend at the time... I gave the fight of my life and won. It was in 1992, and I'm still the youngest champion." At 16 he won two world judo championships, finished fifth in the Sydney Olympics, and was European champion and gold medalist for 2003-2004. Still, Ze'evi, who has a law degree but has hosted a TV sports program and plans to pursue a career in media, also has an additional fan in his corner - his wife, Ravit, whom he married last year. While he doesn't see specific links between law and judo, he does believe "sport is something that's connected to many other things from the mental side - to know you have to invest the time, to not lose faith after you fail and to work hard if necessary." Dealing with his sudden fame after winning in Athens took some adjustment, but Ze'evi made it gladly. "I think I always wanted to be in the spotlight, from the standpoint that I know that if I do become famous, I'll use that fame for positive things and be a good role model. I'm someone who has been working for years and representing the country, and there's a basis for what I achieved. And the fact that I did it in judo, and not in a more popular sport like basketball or soccer makes me feel even prouder." Ze'evi's travels sometimes leave him outside the national loop. The Paris competition had him miss the elections. "I landed on Friday afternoon. It was strange and I watched it all on TV." Still, he has his travel plans focused on London 2012, one step at a time, but determined as always. The Ze'evi File Favorite music: Mixes including traditional Israeli music to hip hop to classic Favorite band: U2, Miri Mesyka, Book reading now: Catch-22 Favorite food: Meat, preferably entrecote TV show he can't miss: Friends, Seinfeld, Heroes Favorite place in Tel Aviv: Hayarkon Park Free time: Watching movies or TV or just finding a spot to rest and do nothing Makes him laugh: Eretz Nehederet Nicest place to visit in Israel: Dead Sea Favorite holiday: Pessah - because of the gathering of all the family