Smooth sailing for Shahar

Zubari wins bronze - Israel's first medal in Beijing games.

olympic promo 224 (photo credit: )
olympic promo 224
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About 10 meters from the finish line, Shahar Zubari realized he had done it. After looking back and seeing that Britain's Nick Dempsey was in seventh position, the 21-year-old Israeli clenched his fist in delight under the bright Qingdao sun, knowing that in seconds he would end the crucial final race in second position and become just the sixth Olympic medalist in Israeli history. Zubari, who entered Wednesday's medal race in fourth place overall, needed to finish at least four places ahead of Dempsey or New Zealand's Tom Ashley to leapfrog either of them onto the podium, and with a superb display of grit and poise, and with some help from the Brit, did exactly that. After jumping in the water and embracing his coach, Zubari returned to the marina, where he was welcomed by all six of Israel's representatives in the various sailing competitions. Vered Buskila, who finished fourth with Nike Kornicki in the 470 Class competition, couldn't stop her tears of joy and raced into the water to hug the man who saved the blushes of the entire delegation by ensuring Israel has now won a medal for a fifth consecutive Games. "I feel so happy. I'm only 21 and I feel like a superstar," said a soaking and beaming Zubari, who will turn 22 on September 1. "I was lucky to have the wind on my side today. When I finished, I counted back and realized I had won the bronze. I went crazy with joy. "This was extremely difficult. I knew I could do well in these conditions and I made the correct tactical decisions and worked hard." Zubari got off to the worst possible start after he was unsure whether he had fault started and just to make sure decided to quickly turn back to cross the start line once more, costing him valuable seconds. The seven knot winds were, however, ideal for the Israeli and by the first mark he had moved into third position in the race behind Hong Kong's King Yin Chan and eventual gold winner Ashley. In the lighter shifty airs and flat seas, Zubari didn't need much longer to overtake Ashley and would hold on to second position until the end of the race. The drama, however, was going on behind Zubari. Dempsey, who entered the race in second place overall, only had to finish in fifth place to edge the Israeli, but China's Aichen Wang wouldn't relinquish his position and the Brit came up eight seconds short of the precious fifth spot and was also overtaken at the finish line by Brazilian Ricardo Santos. "I thought I had fault started and decide to make a quick U-turn to be certain I had crossed the start line properly," Zubari said. "At the first mark I knew I had a chance and that if I overtake Ashley I would do it. I wasn't nervous, but I was very excited. I had butterflies in my stomach, but as soon as the race began the only thing you think about is how you pass the surfers in front of you and close the gap." Prime Minister Ehud Olmert called to congratulate Zubari, saying, "You have made us all so very happy. I followed you over the last eight days and continually marveled at your coolheadedness, your mental strength and your confidence that you would win the medal. You have no idea how exciting this is. You should know that there are many tears of joy being shed from Israeli eyes," the prime minister told the surfer. Zubari was awarded the medal by Israeli International Olympic Committee member Alex Gilady and raised his hands triumphantly after receiving it. Immediately after the race and also during the ceremony, Zubari and his good friend Ashley spoke and embraced many times. A couple of years ago, Zubari was invited by Ashley to come and train in New Zealand, with all the expenses covered by the host. Ashley wanted to learn from Zubari's excellent surfing in weak winds and the Israeli got the chance to pick up a thing or two from the fast wind expert. The joint training sure paid off this year, with Ashley and Zubari not only winning gold and bronze at the Olympics, but also finishing in the same positions at the World Championships in Auckland, New Zealand in January. Israel's head sailing coach Gur Steinberg, who was the man behind Gal Fridman's medals in Atlanta 1996 and Athens 2004, only started working closely with Zubari a couple of months before the Games, but that didn't deter him from comparing the youngster with Israel's only Olympic gold medalist, which Zubari beat to Beijing qualification. "This reminds me of Fridman in 1996. The people around Shahar knew he could take a medal," Steinberg said, referring to Zubari's personal coach Rafa Balilos. "Shahar has an amazing mental ability. He was born with it and throughout his career it has characterized him. He also has a very impressive physical ability, which was very clear in the medal race." At just 21, Steinberg also believes Zubari's future could be very bright. "He will develop over the coming years and has the potential to do even better in the future," said the man who has proven experience in recognizing gold medal potential.