It is often said that nothing is as special as a first.
A first kiss, a first car, a first gold medal.
But for Lee Korzits nothing could be further from the truth.
Korzits became the youngest ever winner of a gold medal at the windsurfing World Championships as a precocious 19-year-old in 2003, but her return to the pinnacle of her sport earlier this month far outweighed her triumph eight years ago.
For Korzits’s story is about a lot more than standing on a surfboard and pulling at a sail. Her comeback from two near-death experiences to claim another gold medal at the World Championships transcends windsurfing, and sports in general.
It is therefore hardly surprising she has been chosen as The Jerusalem Post’s Israeli Sports Personality of the Year for 2011.
“This is great,” Korzits told the Post after being informed of the news.
“I’m really proud so many people chose me. I represent the country and I’m happy I can bring joy to people. It is very important to me to know that the country is behind me.
“Israel is important to me and it is important to me that people care. It is not what makes me train harder, but it does give me a lot of energy.”
Korzits ended the two-week readers’ poll with over 26 percent of the votes and edged basketball star Shay Doron by less than one percent in the closest race ever.
Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball coach David Blatt was also in contention until the final days, finishing third with a respectable 21 percent of the votes.
But it was Korzits who finished at the top of the pack in a year that saw her go from an easily forgotten past champion to Israel’s best medal hope at next summer’s London Olympics.
“Until now I can’t believe I am the world champion,” Korzits said with a smile. “I had got used to saying I’m a former world champion. I suffered a really serious injury and found myself in difficult situations. At certain stages I had already given up.”
However, the 27-year-old refused to quit and reaped the rewards this year.
Besides finishing first in the RS:X windsurfing competition at the Worlds in Perth, Australia, earlier this month, Korzits also took a silver medal at the European windsurfing Championships in Burgas, Bulgaria, in September.
But what made her success particularly remarkable was the fact that two years ago she was told by doctors that she might never walk again and that just last year she came within 30 seconds of drowning.
Achieving extraordinary accomplishments as a teenager took its toll on Korzits, who quickly grew sick with the arduous nature of her sport.
After ending the 2004 Athens Olympics in a relatively disappointing 13th position, the Michmoret native finished as low as 18th in the Europeans and 49th in the Worlds in 2007 following the change to the RS:X Neil Pryde sailboard from the Mistral model.
She lost out to Ma’ayan Davidovich in the battle to represent Israel at the 2008 Beijing Games and decided to take a break.
Korzits flew to a friend in Hawaii and soon joined the Professional Windsurfers Association’s tour. She also took part in extreme surfing events in the Canary Islands and earned a living from selling Dead Sea products and the occasional gardening job.
Despite making little money, Korzits enjoyed every moment, until her life was turned on its head in April 1, 2009.
Korzits was taking part in a photo shoot for one of her sponsors when another surfer rammed into her back.
She broke two ribs and could barely breathe before another massive wave rolled her against the rocks and broke her leg.
She spent two days in intensive care under sedation and was told by doctors that she might be paralyzed and would never be able to surf again.
In what is a testament to Korzits’s unrelenting fighting spirit she independently decided to stop being treated with morphine, and after two torturous days she finally managed to get out of bed, paving the way for her eventual return to Israel.
“While I was injured, I kept asking myself ‘why didn’t I appreciate the life I once had? Why didn’t I fully realize my talent?’
“I thought about what I need to do to succeed and that gave me a lot of strength.
“You only begin to appreciate something when you no longer have it.”
After an excruciating year of rehabilitation, Korzits competed in her first major event since the injury in May of last year, ending the Delta Lloyd Regatta in Medemblik, Netherlands, in 14th place.
However, the comeback almost ended in tragedy when an American windsurfer crashed into her during last July’s European Championships and she found herself trapped underwater underneath her sail.
Korzits lost consciousness, but fortunately a French coach who was nearby noticed her plight and resuscitated her moments before she would have suffered irreversible damage.
“It was really scary, but mainly annoying,” she said. “I couldn’t understand why these bad things keep happening to me. But now when I look back at it I think that perhaps all these bad things happened to make way for something good. It was all part of the process. I am now much stronger and smarter.”
Korzits refused to be traumatized by the frightening experience and she has been on a steady rise since.
“I think that the satisfaction from this gold medal is much greater because I now really appreciate what I have achieved,” Korzits added.
“When you are a kid and you win the world championships out of nowhere you don’t really know how to handle it. Now I know how amazing it is and how hard it is to accomplish.”
Next up for Korzits is March’s 2012 World Championships in Cadiz, Spain, but everyone is already looking forward to the London Olympics, and Lee believes she has what it takes to scale the podium once more, this time on the biggest stage in world sports.
“I really hope I can win a medal in London. That is my goal,” she said. “I will be entering these Olympics much better than the Athens Games as I know what I’m up against.
“I’m optimistic that I’ll do my very best and arrive at the Olympics in the best physical shape. You never know what will happen, but I have the ability to succeed.”