Interview: Rising above the crashing waves

Surfing champion says many unaware of the realities of surfing - and living - in Israel.

Vaknin 224.88 (photo credit: Courtesy )
Vaknin 224.88
(photo credit: Courtesy )
Aviv Vaknin has had to struggle against the elements throughout his career. From a life threatening fall, to facing a surfing world that thinks his country is stuck in the middle of the desert, Vaknin is constantly defying expectations. The three-time Israeli surfing champion has travelled all over the globe, and he told The Jerusalem Post this week that the people he comes up against are largely unaware of the realities of living and surfing in Israel. "The first thing they ask is if we have a sea - the media doesn't help, because if they are showing Israel they show war, and this is the stigma we have. But I try and explain that that isn't how it is. We have waves, we have McDonald's," he laughs. "If they see an Israeli surfer, they ask all the time, 'You probably kill a lot of Arabs, don't you?' They ask if we ride a donkey. No man! We have cars, we have everything here. We are a civilized country." And the oddity of a surfer from the Middle East doesn't end there. The unusual surfing conditions - smaller waves and the relatively underdeveloped industry - also make Israeli surfing a little-known sport locally and in the rest of the world. However Vaknin, 28, has turned these demanding conditions into international surfing gold. His fast-paced, maneuver-packed style and his most recent victories at the 2005, 2006 and 2007 Israel Surfing Association Open Championship leaves no doubt that he has made the most of the Israeli coastline. "When I tour in other countries, people ask me why I surf so fast, and I have to explain that we have smaller waves and we need to surf fast to get as many maneuvers in as possible," he says. Vaknin has a fast, powerful technique, and excels at freestyle surfing. His big aerials and turns have been captured on film for sponsors such as Red Bull and Creative, and a 15-year relationship with Billabong will see him sent to surf Jay Bay, Cape Town, in May. Taught by his brother Moti to surf when he was six years old, Vaknin has been competing since he was 11, when he won the 1991 Junior Israel Surfing Association Championship. His family supported his career move, but had their concerns. "You're not earning a lot of money, and my parents kept telling me to go to university and become a lawyer," he quips. "I was never a good student," he laughs. "To tell you the truth, surfing was my focus; I didn't have a lot of time to study and the result wasn't very good." Vaknin caught the surfing bug, and competed throughout high school and during his IDF service. Crowned 1995 ISA Opens Champion, he surfed with the Israeli team at the World Qualifying Series throughout Europe and even in the US. He competed in the 1998 WQS Championships in California, placing 16th out of more than 400 competitors. And then, at 22, life took an unexpected turn. At around 2 p.m. on the day before Pessah 1999, Vaknin and a friend walked up to a lookout point atop a cliff face to check out the afternoon swell, and perhaps get a session in before the Seder. There were plenty of people sitting on the beach below and on the cliff top. Suddenly, as the young men checked out the view, the cliff gave way beneath Vaknin's feet. He fell 29 meters onto the rocks below. Lucid throughout the ordeal, Vaknin recalls the day. "I remember everything," he says, his voice clearly strained. "This was the big trauma, to remember everything. But immediately, people saw me, and someone called an ambulance." He waited for a half an hour until the specially equipped 4-wheel-drive ambulance arrived. "The doctor said it was a miracle I survived. I am a spiritual guy, but from that year I started to lay tefillin, just because I have to say thanks to somebody for keeping me alive. Somebody must love me up there," he says. His injuries included a broken left wrist, internal bleeding, a ruptured spleen, and liver and kidney damage. His broken ribs pierced his lungs, which collapsed, and after four months in an intensive care unit, he began the long road to recovery with two years of grueling physical therapy. Six months after the accident, however, he was back in the water. "It was great. The whole time [I was in hospital] I thought, 'When am I going back to the sea.' I took my board and started to paddle in the water, for almost a month of strength building. "I was in Herzliya, a typical day of paddling. I didn't plan to surf that day, but I said to myself, 'All right let's give it a shot,'" he recalls. He paddled out, caught a small wave and stood up. "It's like riding a bike - once you learn it you cannot forget it," he says. Two years after his accident, he won the 2001 Israel Surfing Association Championship after competing in the Ashdod and Netanya competitions, and rejoined the Israeli team on tour. "The body is amazing," he says. "If you say, 'I can never go back to doing the things I love,' I saw in myself, it's not true. The spirit is stronger than the body, and if you are thinking positive, everything is going to be good." Sincere words from a man who had been almost finished physically, and managed to revive not only his body, but his hopes and vision for the future. "In the next five years? I want to compete a lot, to really succeed in the European World Qualifying Series and still compete here in Israel. Maybe afterward start my own business, a restaurant - I heard food in Israel is pretty good," he jokes. He credits his success to the support of his family and his girlfriend of one year, Alma, who is also a surfer. "She's really understanding," he says. "She's a very cute girl, very supportive. I wish every guy had someone like this." Nowadays, Aviv Vaknin wants to travel to Australia and Hawaii and develop his style even further. He has his sights set on mastering the "Sushi Roll," a 540 degree aerial maneuver made famous by Australian surfer Julian Wilson. He has also taken up Ashtanga Yoga with a private teacher to keep fit. "You are in a really warm room, and you sweat a lot. I recommend yoga and also the gym to build muscle." Any other advice for the 25,000 or so young Israeli surfers out there? "Train and surf a lot of big waves in Israel," he says. "Travel, and join competitions to get the experience. It's a really different style in the competitions from freestyle surfing. "Live the moment, like it's your last day. We don't know what will happen tomorrow or in another hour. "And for the kids who are surfing today - try not to run from school. Try to focus on surfing and studying. Stay in school and God bless Israel."