Windsurfer Gal Friedman became the first Israeli to win the gold medal at the World Mistral Sailboard Championships, held in Pattaya, Thailand, on Sunday, Dec. 15. Out of the 11 races in the regatta, Friedman won four and in two more he placed second, making it the best-ever achievement for an Israeli windsurfer.
Friedman's achievement wasn't always so certain. Although he had won a bronze medal at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, his fierce rival, Amit Inbar, represented Israel at the Sydney Games in 2000. Friedman's disappointment at being overlooked in favor of Inbar led him to rethink his future, and he took off two years, preferring to concentrate on other sports, such as mountain biking.
Once the Sydney Games ended, Friedman started thinking about making a comeback. At the same time, Inbar decided to quit, but Friedman refused to attend the trials set by the Sailing Association for choosing a team for the European championships. While younger Israeli windsurfers such as Tal Machuro, Yoni Ben-Zeev and Alex Hebner competed against each other, Friedman -- with the help of the Elite Sports Unit and the agreement of the Sailing Association -- received funding to train intensively with Nikos Kaklamanakis, the gold medalist in the last two Olympics.
Friedman credits much of his recent success to his coach, American Mike Gebhardt. "He has helped me with the small things, the things which differentiate between the top places and the rest. Gebhardt is himself a former Olympic medalist, and his experience has helped me -- mostly in motivating me to believe that I can win," Friedman said.
"He has proved his great potential. He has the attributes of a champion," an ecstatic Gebhardt said Sunday of Friedman. "He has great technique and a strong character, but he needs some moral support to make him even better," he said.
Friedman's title places him as a leading contender among Israelis going for an Olympic medal in the 2004 Athens Games, alongside pole vaulter Alex Averbukh and kayaker Mikhail Kalganov.
Despite the fact that he was in 19th place after his first race in Thailand, Friedman got back on course on Sunday, took the lead on the second day of competition and did not look back. "I didn't try to go for a medal, I went for the gold," he said. "This was a long and tough event, but I stayed close to the title all the way through. I have had a good year. It is very difficult to be second in Europe and world champion in the same year, but I have done it, and I have proved that I am part of the leading group in the world." -- Staff Report