Israel’s best ski racer ready for Olympic stage
'I’m going for the gold – there’s no other way to do it,' said 19-year-old Itamar Biran.
Itamar Biran has come a long way from Club Med. The 19-year-old is set to become only the second Israeli man to compete in alpine ski racing at the Winter Olympics. Mykhaylo Renzhyn was the first, participating in 2006 and 2010; Virgile Vandeput qualified for Sochi in 2014 but did not compete due to a training injury just before the Games. And Biran has already posted better results in regular season races than either of his predecessors.
PHOTOS: Israel at the Winter Olympics
“I started skiing like all Israelis do: At Club Meds in Europe. That’s where my dad took me for the first time,” Biran told From the Grapevine via Skype while preparing himself a chicken teriyaki dinner. He was about 3 years old the first time he put on a pair of skis. At 6, his family moved to Verbier, Switzerland, and shortly after that he joined the local ski team.
“I liked it from the beginning. Skiing is a tough sport. It’s very tiring when you’re outside all the time as a young kid – it’s not the ideal thing to do. You’d rather be playing with your friends. But I always loved it, and my love grew the older I got and I started to appreciate it more and more.”
Fluent in English, Hebrew and French, Biran finished school last year in the U.K. and is taking this winter off to focus on ski racing. He is living and training in France with S-Team, made up of an international group of athletes.
“We have a few small nations together with skiers at a high level, and we train together," Biran explained. "I trained on my own for a year, and then I realized it’s better to train with other people. You’ve got to find people who are the same level that can push you forward."
Not only is he Israel’s top ski racer at the moment, a dual citizen of Israel and the U.K., he’s also one of the best British ski racers. While Great Britain has a formal national team, Biran chose to race for Israel.
“Why ski for Israel versus Britain – it’s a question everyone asks me. Since I was 13, I knew I would race for Israel. I’ve always wanted to connect back to the country in that way. It’s really just a thing of pride. And as it turns out, it’s given me pretty good opportunities,” he said.
He made his debut among the best in the world at the 2015 FIS Alpine World Championships in Beaver Creek, Colo. The youngest competitor in the field, he finished 62nd in the men’s giant slalom final. In 2016, he represented Israel at the Youth Olympic Games in Lillehammer, Norway, where he finished 38th in the super G and 23rd in the alpine combined, an event comprised of one run of slalom and one run of super G requiring both technical prowess and courage of a speed skier.
Any ski racer, likely any athlete, will try to tell you that the Olympics are “just another race.” But the huge crowds, the media, the extracurricular activities and the aura surrounding the Games often take its toll on rookies and seasoned athletes alike.
“I never really imagined myself going to the Olympics. When I started skiing more professionally and realized what it was leading to, it got quite a bit more exciting. Even 22 days out, I feel excited, but I don’t think it will kick in until I’m actually there,” Biran told us. “The World Championships and the Youth Olympic Games have definitely prepared me for what to expect in Pyeongchang so that the big atmosphere and the crowds won’t affect me as much. I’m just going to try to be the best I can be, and try to experience as many things as possible.”
He hopes to be in the crowd at the ice hockey final and get the chance to take in his first ski jumping competition. He’ll also try to cheer for as many of his Israeli teammates as the schedule will allow. Israel will be sending its largest delegation ever to these Winter Games.
The Olympics aren't his only big event this season. On his way to Pyeongchang, he’ll make a stop at Davos, Switzerland, for the FIS Alpine Junior World Championships. He’ll land in South Korea just in time for the opening ceremony.
He is expected to race the giant slalom on Feb. 18 and the slalom on Feb. 22. He will be one of the youngest athletes competing in alpine skiing in Pyeongchang, significantly younger than most of the favorites – Marcel Hirscher of Austria, Alexis Pinterault of France, Andre Myhrer of Sweden and Ted Ligety of the U.S.A., are all in their late 20s and early 30s.
“I would be over the moon with a top 30, and that’s a very big possibility if I put in solid skiing over two runs. Especially in slalom, where I’m a lot better than GS at the moment. So that’s my main goal, but I’m not going to think about it too much.” But he said it’s not likely to be his only Olympics. He’s going not just for 2022, but for 2026, too.
In the ski racing world, going to college or going to the World Cup used to be a choice an athlete had to make, but in the last several years, several ski racers have continued to compete at the highest level while also attending university. Currently, David Ketterer is a member of the German National Team and the ski team at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Biran has applied to the Bocconi University in Milan and Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, two schools very friendly to ski racing, where he would be able to study while also continuing to train.
“I’m going for the gold – there’s no other way to do it. You either go hard or go home. I want to at least win a World Cup. At the Olympics, to be up there with the best in the world, that’s the goal.”
More Winter Olympic coverage on From The Grapevine:
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- Israel's best ski racer ready for Olympic stage
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- Video: Interview with father of Israeli Olympian Itamar Biran
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