(Clockwise from top left): Shahar Zubari, Yael Arad, Arik Ze’evi, Gal Fridman, Oren Smadga and Michael Kolganov. (Clockwise from top left): Shahar Zubari, Yael Arad, Arik Ze’evi, Gal Fridman, Oren Smadga and Michael Kolganov. (Clockwise from top left): Shahar Zubari, Yael Arad, Arik Ze’evi, Gal Fridman, Oren Smadga and Michael Kolganov. (Photo: Getty Images)

Winning an Olympic medal changed these athletes' lives forever

6 Israelis reflect on what it meant entering the history books.

The Summer Olympics have finally arrived. One team we'll be keeping our eyes on is the Israeli squad – with athletes participating in gymnastics, golf, track and field, sailing, badminton and more.

This year's crew follows in a long tradition of former Olympians from the Mediterranean country. Below, we catch up with six of them.

Yael Arad (Silver medalist, Judo 1992)

Yael Arad at a qualifying event last summer.Yael Arad attended a qualifying event last summer. (Photo: Courtesy photo)

Yael Arad was the first Israeli to ever win an Olympic medal. An unassuming and humble athlete, Arad entered the history books on July 30, 1992. “Emotionally it was the highest moment of my life and, despite my losing later in the finals, the victory in the semi-finals was the sweetest of all," she said. "That day I changed from a person who wanted to a person who could. And that made all the difference.”


Oren Smadga (Bronze medalist, Judo 1992)

Oren Smadga (left) is now a coach for the Israeli judo team.Oren Smadga (left) is now a coach for the Israeli judo team. (Photo: Courtesy photo)

After the euphoria of Yael Arad, a young judoka named Oren Smadga followed with a bronze. “I knew inside that I was able to do it," he told From The Grapevine. “Winning bronze made me believe in myself, allowed me to rely on my abilities and faith in whatever I do.” Smadga has dedicated his life to his sport and will be headed to Rio coaching some of Israel's athletes. “I'm glad I managed my victories from the past to make judo one of the most successful industries in Israel."


Gal Fridman (Bronze medalist, Sailing, 1996; Gold medalist, Sailing, 2004)

Gold medallist Gal Fridman got a hero's welcome when he landed at Ben Gurion Airport in Israel.Gold medallist Gal Fridman got a hero's welcome when he landed at the airport in Israel. (Photo: Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)

Gal Fridman, who excelled in the sailing competition, won bronze in Atlanta. He missed Sydney, but returned to the Olympics in Athens – where he won Israel’s first-ever gold medal. “It’s a dream come true. I felt like the whole country was watching me and pushing me from behind,” he said at the time. “I was very calm and focused. I always said that my objective is the gold. I went for it with all my strength; I believed in myself, and I did it.”


Michael Kolganov (Bronze medalist, Kayaking, 2000)

Israel's Michael Kolganov is seen here competing in the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.Israel's Michael Kolganov is seen here competing in the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. (Photo: Manan Vatsyayana/Getty Images)

Michael Kolganov started kayaking as a young boy. Competing in Sydney in both the 500 meter and the 1000 meter, there was a lot of racing for Kolganov to do. He went in with high expectations, and making the final in both events took a lot out of him. “I was very tired because they had delayed my race a number of times," he recalled. He raced his heart out and on the last day won a bronze medal. Life as an Olympic medalist, he said, isn’t too different for the kayaker. “My life is good," he told From The Grapevine. "But if I could go back in time, I wouldn't choose sport as a profession."


Arik Ze’evi (Bronze medalist, Judo, 2004)

Israel's Arik Ze'evi (in white) competes against France's Frederic Demontfaucon at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.Israel's Arik Ze'evi (in white) competes against France's Frederic Demontfaucon at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. (Photo: Toshifumi Kitamura/AFP/Getty Images)

The judoka headed into Athens with a healthy dose of confidence. “I arrived undefeated that year, so expectations were high," he recalled. He won the bronze medal in a semi-final bout against a South Korean opponent, and his life changed forever. “My legacy began, and this helped me become well-known, which has helped my career. I didn't need the medal, though, to know that I was good," he told us. Ze’evi will be heading to the Olympics in Rio, this time as a television commentator.


Shahar Zubari (Bronze medalist, Sailing, 2008)

Shahar Zubari of Israel competed at the London 2012 Olympic Games.Shahar Zubari of Israel competed at the London 2012 Olympic Games. (Photo: Clive Mason/Getty Images)

Competing in the same event that Gal Fridman won gold in four years prior, there were a lot of expectations on Shahar Zubari. “I didn't know what to expect. I was full of motivation and had to replace the big shoes of the reigning Olympic champion," he told From The Grapevine. He finished strong in third place. “I was really happy and excited to win a medal, and now I knew what it took to win a big competition.” Zubari will be back at it in Rio, making him the only member of the 2016 team who is an Olympic medalist.

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