NEW YORK (Jan. 30)
Galit Chait left Israel with her family as an infant and grew up in the United States. Sergei Sakhnovski grew up in Russia and immigrated to the Jewish state at the age of 19. In a few weeks, the ice-dancing duo, both Israeli citizens, will be the best hope for Israel’s first-ever medal in the Winter Olympic Games, which will take place in Turin, Italy, from Feb. 10-Feb. 26.
It’s a responsibility they’re reminded of whenever they’re in Israel, where they’ve put ice skating on the map.
"We’re not only skating for ourselves," Chait said last week during an interview at their home rink in northern New Jersey. "We’re skating for a country — and a country that expects a lot."
According to most observers, Israelis are right to expect a lot from the pair. They won a bronze medal at the 2002 World Championships and are considered serious contenders in Turin.
"They need to skate well," said one of their coaches, two-time Russian Olympic gold medalist Evgeny Platov. "And have some luck."
If Chait and Sakhnovski do, they would make history for Israel. Israel has won medals in Summer Olympics; most recently, Gal Fridman won a gold in windsurfing at the Athens Games in 2004.
During the interview at the snack-bar area at the Floyd Hall Arena in Little Falls, N.J., Chait and Sakhnovski, both 30, couldn’t seem more different.
Pretty and petite, her hair dyed a reddish orange, Chait describes herself as full of energy, "like the Energizer bunny." She admitted to being anxious, while he’s the calmer of the two.
Sakhnovski — with longish dark hair, brooding eyes and small glasses — looks like a graduate student in philosophy.
On the ice, their personalities mesh well. They’re known for their intense, expressive skating style that has made them favorites with the fans. During the Olympics, their free dance will feature Ravel’s Bolero, while during their original dance they will skate to cha cha, rhumba and samba music.
But they took very different paths as young skaters.
Chait was born in the Israeli city of Kfar Saba to parents who had immigrated to the Jewish state from the then-Soviet republic of Moldova. Her family moved to the United States before she turned 1. At the age of 8, she began her skating career with a trip to Rockefeller Center in New York City.
She competed for a while in individual events before switching to ice dancing.
Sakhnovski, whose father is Jewish but whose mother is not, began skating in Russia at age 4 — "when my mother pushed me into it," he said.
By the age of 8, he was already into ice dancing, which is similar to pairs figure skating, but does not allow lifts or other strength moves.
"It’s a stage — you need the play there like an actor," said Sakhnovski, who immigrated to Israel on his own as a young adult.
His family still lives in Moscow, while he lives in Freehold, N.J., as does Chait.
After skating with other partners, the two came together in the mid-1990s, at the suggestion of another coach. They finished 14th at the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan, and sixth at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City.
The climb hasn’t come easy. Except for a month off in June, the two train at least six to eight hours a day. Training includes running, weightlifting and ballet, as well as ice time. They reduce the workload only during the winter, when there are skating competitions.
"For eight and a half months, we work every single day," Chait said.
Their work has paid off, not only for themselves but for Israel’s image in the world.
Boris Chait, Gail’s father, who also serves as chairman of the Israeli Ice Skating Federation, said that recently, a Chinese woman approached him after a competition and said, "Kol hakavod," which translates loosely from the Hebrew as "more power to you."
The two are "some of the best ambassadors of the country in the world," Boris Chait said.
They’re ambassadors within Israel as well.
"When we started skating, people weren’t aware there was an ice-dancing team from Israel. People laughed at us," Galit Chait said. "Now everyone knows."
After the Turin Olympics are over, they said, they plan to stop skating as amateurs and want to train and coach, promoting the sport further in Israel. There the national rink is part of the Canada Centre, located in the city of Metulla in northern Israel.
While they might promote the sport together in Israel in the future, theirs is only a business relationship. They are each dating others — Chait’s boyfriend is Jewish, while Sakhnovski’s girlfriend is not.
On a late January day, they skate in the New Jersey rink, which features a Pepsi scoreboard with a sign that says, "Home of the Montclair Hockey Club."
She’s wearing a light blue fleece and white sweats, he’s wearing a medium blue sweatsuit with the letters "ISR" for Israel on the back that he takes off as the practice gets going.
For the next hour and a half, they glide, bend and dance together on the ice for an hour and a half, occasionally stopping to receive instruction from their Russian coaches.
It’s a relaxed practice, since they just finished the European Championships in Lyon, France, where they finished fifth. They’ll gradually increase their skating time, and spend the immediate pre-Olympics period in Russia to acclimate to European time.
But whether or not they reach the podium depends on the judges in the notoriously political world of skating. They believe they should have finished higher at the competition in France.
Boris Chait doesn’t mince his words on the subject.
"If they had been skating for the United States, if they had been skating for Canada, if they had been skating for Russia, they would have had a much easier time," he said, adding, "Israel has to say thank you for being accepted into the boys club."
Galit Chait is more diplomatic. "After this, I understood that you can’t fight with it," she said of the judges’ decision.
It wasn’t the first time controversy has surrounded the pair. At the 2002 World Championships, after Chait and Sakhnovski edged out a Lithuanian duo for a bronze medal, a petition protesting the decision circulated among competitors and judges. But the ruling stood.
Gailt Chait said she has learned a lesson: "Don’t skate for the judges; skate for the people."