Israeli gold medal windsurfer Lee Korsitz, center, poses with the runner ups in the 2003 World Mistral Championship, part of the Olympic Sailing World Championships in Cadiz, Spain. For the first time ever, Israelis welcomed two world champions home from triumph twice in the same week, raising national hopes as the country looks ahead to the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece.
First, windsurfer Lee Korsitz, 19, sailed to a gold medal in the 2003 World Mistral Championship, part of the Olympic Sailing World Championships in Cadiz, Spain. In doing so, she not only qualified for the 2004 Olympic Games, but also became the first Israeli woman to ever win a World Championship in any sport. At just under 19 and half years of age, she was also the youngest woman to ever win a Mistral windsurfing championship.
Edging out experienced New Zealander, Barbara Kendall, a three-time Olympic medalist and defending world champion – Korsitz stunned the sailing world and guaranteed her spot on the Olympic team that will represent Israel in Athens.
Then, just a week later, Gocha Tzitziashvili became the world champion in his class in Greco-Roman Wrestling winning the gold medal in Creteil, France, at the 2003 World Championships, also guaranteeing an Olympic spot.
The dramatic overtime victory took place in overtime after a nine-minute bout, in the 84-kilogram final of the Greco-Roman world championships, taking down two-time world champion Aza Abrahamian of Sweden. In Greco-Roman wrestling, combatants are not allowed to use their legs to take down an opponent and no holds may be taken below the waist.
Both of the new champions were excited and thrilled to represent Israel in their victories.
Describing his moment of victory, Tzitziashvili said, “I felt like the strongest man in the world. I wouldn’t trade that moment, where I showed the world that our country is strong, for a million dollars.”
“My dream was to hear my national anthem,” Korsitz said. The windsurfer, who lives on the shore of the Mediterranean on Moshav Michmoret, was visibly stunned by her win. She has only been sailing at the senior level for just over one year, and came into the event ranked No. 29 in the world. She started out as a 470 class sailor but moved to the solo Mistral event after she was left without a partner in the other event.
Following her win, Korsitz paid tribute to her mentor, Gal Friedman, outgoing men’s world champion, who was somewhat disappointed himself in taking only the bronze medal in the men’s event. “I knew she could do it,” he said of Korsitz’s surprise victory. “Lee was incredible in this championship and proved she has a lot of ability and maturity. She was a rightful winner.”
Friedman “has taught me everything,” Korsitz said.
Korsitz led the Mistral event in Spain from day one. She won the first race, and finished the next three in fourth, third, and sixth place before winning the fifth race to add to her lead. After her worst performance (32nd) in the sixth race, back-to-back second place finishes made her the clear favorite.
In her last race, which was delayed for four hours by a lack of wind, Korsitz finished in 17th place, which was just enough to take the competition.
“I still can’t believe it,” said Korsitz following the race. “That I should be world champion? I came here to get a ticket to Athens, to finish among the first 15 windsurfers so that I would get to the Olympics, and I found royalty – world champion!”
Until a year ago Korsitz had been a relative unknown, even within Israel. But things began to change after Korsitz won the 2002 Israeli Championship. Korsitz, who meanwhile began training with Gal Friedman, then went on to take top ten spots in major European competitions and earned herself a place at the pre-Olympic meet in Athens two months ago, where she finished fourth, raising hopes that she could manage to finish in the top ten and make it through to the Athens Olympics.
This, too, was the primary goal of Gocha Tzitziashvili as he headed to his competition, and he, too, was surprised to find himself world champion. He had come close in the past. In 1994, the year he emigrated from Tbilisi, Georgia, Tzitziashvili won a silver medal at the European Championships. Then, at the 1995 competition, he took home a silver medal for Israel, which was the first-ever Israeli medal at that international wrestling competition. In 1996, at the European Championships, Tzitziashvili won the bronze. He has also competed in two Olympiads for Israel, the 1996 Atlanta Games and Sydney in 2000.
Upon his return to Israel, the 30-year-old wrestler received a warm welcome by Israel’s Olympic committee, his family and members of Israel’s Georgian immigrant community. The World Congress of Georgian Jews awarded Gocha NIS 100,000 (about $20,000) in honor of his win.
In reaction to the hugs, kisses and cheers, Tzitziashvili quipped, “If I knew it was going to be like this, I would have won the medal years ago.”
He is certain that it won’t be the last medal he brings home, promising the crowd that he would deliver in 2004, “a gold one, God willing.” In the two previous Olympic Games he competed in, in 1996 in Atlanta and in Sydney in 200, he finished fifth and sixth respectively.