By Maayan Jaffe-Hoffman
At 5 feet 7 inches tall, and weighing around 150 pounds, 26-year-old optimistic and powerful blonde Ilana Kratysh will become the first-ever Israeli woman to compete in the wrestling events at the Olympic Games in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, which began Aug. 5. On Aug. 17 she will fight for the gold in the under 69-kilogram category.
“It is an honor to be a part of the games,” Kratysh told JNS.org. “This was always my dream. But the idea is not just to take part [in the Olympics]. I hope to make it; to get a medal; to be the best.…I will beat everybody,” she confidently said.
A four-time European Championships silver medalist, Kratysh earned her spot at the Olympics in the spring after winning the 69-kilogram semi-final contest at the United World Wrestling World Olympic Games Qualifying Tournament in the Mongolian capital Ulaanbaatar. She trains with Ukrainian coach Vasyl Petrovych Fedoryshyn, himself a wrestler who competed in the men’s 60-kilogram freestyle division.
Kratysh’s strong athletic background and determination is representative of Israel’s Olympic team competing in Rio. While Israel has been competing in the Olympics since 1952, and won seven medals between 1992 and 2008, the Jewish state came home empty-handed from the 2012 London games, and hopes to bounce back with a strong showing in Rio. Israel sent 47 athletes to the games, breaking its previous record of 42 athletes in 2008. The Israeli athletes will compete in a record of 17 different events.
Kratysh, who was born to Russian immigrants to Israel just one hour after they arrived in Israel in 1990 (her mother was eight months pregnant and nearly gave birth on the plane), began her athletic career at the age of five. Her father, Alexander Kratysh, trained the national judo team of Saint Petersburg for five years, and her brother is a judoka.
“My mom wanted me to take dancing and other stuff,” Kratysh says with a laugh, but “I always wanted to beat my brother. I guess I was competitive.”
Kratysh learned judo under her father’s direction, but an army injury to her hand cut her judo career short. After undergoing hand surgery and struggling to recover at the age of 20, she was approached by the Israeli Wrestling League to “try out the sport.”
“They sent me to some tournaments to see how it is,” Kratysh recalls. “When I won that first medal, I decided, ‘I can win – why not?’ I took the risk, and that’s how I got here.”
But becoming an Israeli wrestler is not without its challenges. There is no Israeli team, and there are few coaches. As such, over the last five years, Kratysh has been on the road – in Ukraine, Canada, Bulgaria and Belarus – “training to get better.”
It has also been tough on her and her family, but she says her mom, dad and brother are all very supportive. So is her native-born Israeli boyfriend.
“It is hard for them and hard for me, but I do it for my dream,” Kratysh says, noting that her Judaism and spirituality have also played a role in getting her through tough times. Even on her travels, she makes a point of attending synagogue weekly on Shabbat.
“When I go and pray, I just feel it relaxing me,” she says. “Just going to hear the Hebrew is the best thing ever. I just feel stronger after that.”
Kratysh has also experienced her share of anti-Semitism and anti-Israeli animosity while competing abroad.
In June 2013, for example, Kratysh faced Egyptian wrestler Enas Moustafa Youssef Khourshild, who refused to shake her hand before their match and then attempted to bite Kratysh and break her fingers. Kratysh now laughs about the incident –she won, and since then she and Khourshild have become good friends.
“It was not nice,” Kratysh says nonchalantly, but “it is all behind us now.”
As someone who has always counted on her family for support, Kratysh hopes her appearance in Rio will be her way to thank them.
“The idea of making my parents proud is unbelievable,” she says, noting that they always believed in her abilities. “To make them proud is the best thing ever.”
By representing Israel in Rio, Kratysh hopes not only to proudly represent the world’s only Jewish state, but also help the sport grow at home and encourage more Israelis to take it up.
“I am the only one [Israeli] represented in this sport and the first one. I want to put our flag on the map for this sport,” she says. “I will do my best and I hope to hear the Hatikvah.”
Her advice: “Believe. Make a goal, believe in it and get to it. … If you just believe in yourself, believe in God and you can make it.”
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