Andy Wheeler and JudoInside
IJF Media Team / International Judo Federation
When Ariel “Arik” Zeevi, first stepped onto a judo mat, he was 7 years old. Growing up in a rough neighbourhood in Bnei Brak just East of Tel Aviv in Israel, sporting options were limited. He chose judo because it was near to where he lived. He started training in a shelter inside a local community centre, his first coach was 16 years old and one of his neighbours. Today is Ariel’s 44th birthday
The shelter was tiny, the thin mats like concrete. A talented keen youngster, whose physicality and mindset lent themselves beautifully to the sport, the spartan surroundings and humble beginnings never hindered him. Quite the opposite.
Judo transformed his life and became a fast track highway out of the ghetto.
Despite many accolades Ariel achieved two remarkable bookends in his competitive career.
In 1992 aged 15, while still a cadet, he won the Senior Israeli National Championships, becoming the youngest ever to achieve this feat.
Going on three years later to become Junior European Champion at -86kg.
In 2012 twenty years after that first senior success, he took his fourth and final senior European Championship victory at -100kg, becoming the oldest male judoka ever to hold a European title in judo, aged 35.
An accolade he still holds to this day.
At the Athens Olympics in 2004, Arik threw Elco van der Geest for Ippon, taking Bronze by way of a beautiful counter, with 51 seconds remaining.
As the medal ceremony ended, the tv cameras stopped rolling and the audience headed for the exits. Happy to have seen a great day of action.
All of the audience that is, except the Israeli contingent.
Olympic Games Athens
Two thousand five hundred people had come to watch Ariel fight in Athens, as everyone else departed, they all remained, to revel in their compatriots achievement.
As the medalists posed for photographs, the Belarus national anthem which had just played for Gold medalist Ihar Makarau, was soon forgotten, as Ariels fans stood, two thousand five hundred voices raised, to sing Israels national anthem Hatikvah.
To this day, it was a special moment for him.
Afterwards Israel’s Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called him with a message of congratulations and support……
“You were under a lot of pressure and you stood fast as a true warrior, you have brought great joy to the entire nation of Israel.”
As his competitive career came to an end. Arik looked for ways to give back to his sport and Israeli sport in particular.
From coaching the national cadet squad to founding the Israeli Foundation for Olympic Excellence. Arik strives to give kids like him, an opportunity to shine.
The IFOE, is a national talent ID program to find, encourage and nurture gifted youngsters, often from underprivileged backgrounds.
Marrying them up to a sport which suits their particular strengths, giving talented kids a platform to find the sport that best suits them.
In the process, improving future Olympic and international medal prospects, for Israel and it’s youth.
With so many great achievements, in a career spanning over twenty years…….
Judoinside caught up with quadruple European Champion Ariel Zeevi, to ask him the intriguing question.
“If you could live one day from your competitive judo life again, exactly as it happened, with no changes.
Which day would you choose and why?”
Ariel Zeevi: Although my Olympic Bronze was memorable, it was at the same time a disappointment.
To most people an Olympic medal is a great achievement, in hindsight it is, but on that day, I had fallen short of my mark. In my eyes I had underachieved.
The day I would like to relive, is the final day of the 2001 World Championships in Munich.
I had a film crew who’d flown in especially for the event. They’d been filming my road to the Worlds since Paris, for a planned documentary. They were here to film my every move, hoping to return with a victorious denouement.
As reigning European Champion, expectations were high going into that competition, I was undefeated all year. I’d won the Grand Prix of Prague and the Grand Prix Citta di Roma in Italy.
It was expected that I’d be in the medals.
I fully anticipated going in to this tournament, to meet Olympic champion Kosei Inoue in the final.
Alas when reality catches up with anticipation, the outcome is rarely the desired one.
First match I was thrown for Ippon in two minutes by Nicholas Gill of Canada.
He never made the finals. My day was done. Before it had even started.It was so frustrating.
A loss like this can be devastating for an athlete.
I hadn’t even broken sweat.
I was well prepared, felt good, I felt strong, but in judo this doesn’t always transfer to victory on the mat. Anything can happen.
A lifetime of graft and a year of meticulous preparation down the Suwannee.
I could do one of two things
Return home to Israel beaten and bowed, which for me was never an option.
Or I could be pragmatic about the result, learn from it and move on……..
In this case moving on quicker than my friends and family would have liked.
As luck would have it, I competed on the first day of the championships.
On the final day was the Openweight category. Where anyone could enter no matter what their weight.
This chink of light gave me a glimmer of hope. A second bite at the cherry.
They were making a movie for heaven’s sake!
I wasn’t going to be content with a two minute lowlight reel of me going out in my first fight.
This was an opportunity to make a movie worth watching.
My mind was made up. I entered the Openweight division.
Once an Olympic category, it was dropped as it was always dominated by the +100kg players.
There were some giants among them that year. 120kg, 140kg, there was a guy from Spain weighing 180kg.
Before the day arrived I was receiving phone calls from home, imploring me not to enter.
‘Are you crazy?
‘You’ll get injured.’
‘You’ll lose for sure’
My mother worriedly called, she had read in a newspaper that I might get injured. ‘Don’t do it,’ she beseeched me.
I told them all, I have to do it, I have to compete. Trust me I’ll be fine.
The day arrived, my first match was against Roberto Trujillo of Cuba 130kg.
After three minutes I threw him for Ippon and then met Alexandru Lungu of Romania, weighing in at 150kg.
He was leading all contest and I couldn’t budge him, he was huge. 17 seconds from the end he made a mistake and I took my chance, once again throwing for Ippon.
I threw the Korean Kang 130kg next.
With three Ippons in a row, I moved into the semi-final to face, Georgias Ramaz Chochishvili 135kg.
In one of my toughest matches ever, I managed to beat him on points.
Final against Mikhailin
Propelling me into a World Championship final against Russias Alexander Mikhailin, who had himself taken Gold a few days earlier at +100 and was going for the double.
I had beaten him in the past when he fought at -100 . For the first time that day, I went into the match believing I could win.
The contest with Lungu was a great confidence booster, the way I turned a loss into victory with 17 seconds left.
I fancied my chances. Even before the Final, my mood was jubilant. I was elated. Big Mistake.
I had at the very least, a Worlds silver medal.
Something that hadn’t been done for 21 years.
A -100kg player making the Final.
I was happy to be there.
The match started but I never got going.
I was swept for Ippon in under a minute.
Message in the event
There’s an important message for all athletes to be taken from this.
If you arrive at the final of a competition, content to be getting at least a Silver medal, then the Silver medal is what you’ll likely end up with.
The moment you switch off that ‘win or die trying’ attitude.
You lose momentum, your strength diminishes , along with your hunger.
You lose dynamism, your intensity suffers along with your desire for victory.
All leading to a below par performance.
Put simply, you fight a different fight.
An athlete who is happy with second place, seldom comes first.
Embrace Silver and you’ll probably lose sight of Gold.
Despite the loss in the final, this Silver medal felt like redemption. I knew what I was capable of and this day I proved it.
This was where I belonged.
I think my second place that year in the Open as a -100kg fighter, taking on and prevailing against all comers, was pioneering at the time.
It highlighted that there’s a place for the smaller players in the Openweight Division.
On any given day, a great smaller one can run with the big dogs.
Osaka World Championships
Two years later at the Osaka World Championships, -100kg player Keiji Suzuki of Japan, entered the Open and went one better on home soil.
Taking Gold in front of a rapturous partisan crowd.
On the same day, another -100kg player took Bronze, Azerbaijans Movlud Miraliyev.
The following year a few guys from -90kg entered and almost medaled.
Seeing is believing.
My example highlighted the possibility for success in the minds of others.
If you can dream it, you can do it.
If you have your mind set on something, never miss out on an opportunity, no matter the challenge.
Never allow the opinions of naysayers and doubters, to determine your way forward.
Half of them are afraid you’ll fail, while the other half are terrified you might just succeed.
Judo has given me great friends and precious memories.
Finding judo at an early age, gave me a purpose in life.
It gave me direction, in all things.
It allowed me to travel to far corners of the globe having amazing experiences along the way.
Judo and sport have given me so much.
It’s time to shepherd in a new generation.
With the IFOE, we’re marrying up the best coaches with the most promising young athletes, in any given discipline.
It’s important that talented youngsters get access to quality coaching and facilities.
We’re creating a system for them to flourish and blossom.
Who knows, we may even get some Olympic medals along the way.
If Michael Phelps had grown up without access to a swimming pool. He would never have won 23 Olympic Gold medals.
In 2012 Ariel Zeevi became the oldest European male judo Champion, a record still valid.