Israeli skater is racing toward Olympic dream

JERUSALEM — Olga Danilov glides along the ice, one hand brushing the smooth surface, the other tucked behind her back.

Thigh muscles pumping, she skates along a trail of rubber markers placed along the ice, using them as a guide for her daily laps.

Between runs, Israel's Olympic speed skater throws on her blue-and-white warm-up suit and skates over to her 3-year-old daughter, Nicole, who is sitting on a stool at the rink's edge, drinking hot chocolate and eating cookies.

Speaking in Russian, her coach, Boris Drabkin, calls out her time: "9.2 seconds."

She grimaces, straps her helmet back on and returns to the ice for another series of laps.

Over the loudspeaker, a tape of Russian folksongs for children is playing, Nicole's favorite music while she watches her mother practice.

Danilov and two figure-skating couples represent the entire Israeli team participating in the upcoming Winter Olympic Games, slated to begin Feb. 8 in Salt Lake City, say Israeli officials.

Outside the windows of Metulla's Canada Center, the home of the Israel Ice Skating Federation, snow-capped Mount Hermon can be seen rising in the distance.

"Some say we're not really a winter sports country," said Judith Javor, general secretary of the local council in the town of Metulla. "But if you look out the window it sure looks like it."

There's also a clear view of nearby Syria and Lebanon, as Israel's northern border is just an Olympic ski jump away.

"We Jews have to develop our cultural side, and sports is part of culture. It's the life that we immigrants know about," said Drabkin, who pushed for the Olympic-size speed skating rink in Metulla after moving to northern Israel 11 years ago.

Both Danilov and Drabkin are immigrants — Danilov from Ukraine and Drabkin from Russia.

Danilov followed her sister to Israel in 1994. Drabkin came with his wife from Moscow, where he trained the Russian national speed skating team.

They made their way to Israel with hundreds of thousands of other Russian immigrants in the 1990s, not expecting to continue their skating careers in the arid Middle East.

"I had finished school and was thinking about what to do next," said Danilov, a slim 28-year-old with a full mane of curly reddish hair. "All my friends had left Ukraine, and I had been thinking about Israel for a while."

She had heard about Drabkin while still living in Ukraine, and contacted him soon after arriving at her sister's home in Netanya.

Drabkin already had been living in Israel for several years. He was instrumental in creating the speed-skating program at the Canada Center and helping Israel gain membership in the Winter Olympics.

"It was hard back then because we didn't have skaters and we didn't have experience," said Drabkin, who cleaned floors in Tel Aviv during his first year in Israel. "I started to build the first roots, working with local kids. And then Olga came from the Ukraine."

Danilov has been skating since she was 3-1/2, when she took up the sport on doctor's orders. She moved from figure skating to long-track and then to short-track skating in her teens, competing in international events.

By the time she finished school, politics had changed the face of her country, and she started thinking about moving to Israel.

By 1995, Danilov was living in Metulla to train with Drabkin and prepare for the 1998 Olympics. She needed to be in the top 20 in the world in order to qualify but only made it to 22nd place.

Missing the 1998 Olympics was devastating, but there were soon some joys to make up for it, including her marriage to Alex Danilov, an Israeli Olympic competitor in shooting, and the birth of Nicole shortly after.

She returned to training in late 1999, making her way through a series of international competitions and moving toward the 2002 Olympics.

But since 1998, her perspective has changed.

"I thought that if I wasn't in the 1998 Olympics it would be the end of the world," she said, rolling her eyes and grinning. "This year it's important, but there are other important aspects of my life as well. In some ways, the Olympics feels like any other competition."

However, for Drabkin and other federation officials involved in Israel's Olympic trials, Danilov's participation is significant.

"This is Israel's third time in the Winter Olympics, although it is the first time the country is participating in speed skating," Javor said.

"The Olympic Committee is getting used to having Israel participate in winter sports, as is the International Skating Union," she added. "We still have to work very hard, but having Olga helps."

Israel has only one speed skater in this year's Olympics, whereas most countries have at least two, if not an entire team. That makes it harder to earn medals.

Israel did have a male speed skater, Denis Zaslavsky, but he was hurt last winter during the European Speed Skating Championships in The Hague.

There are four short-track events in this year's Olympics, ranging from 500 meters to 1,500 meters. Danilov will have to compete in several heats for each race in order to make it to the semi-finals and then the finals.

Will she earn a medal?

"Hard to say," answered Drabkin. "Speed skating is 95 percent hard work and 5 percent talent."