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Israeli show jumpers begin equest for greatness.
With the Rio Olympics on the horizon, Jewish hopefuls expectantly hold their horses
Danielle Goldstein has a Zionist dream, and she’s taking the reins to make it happen.
The world-class equestrian has already fulfilled a lifelong goal by becoming a citizen of Israel, where she’s determined to help assemble the country’s first Olympic show jumping team for the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro.
“One of the main reasons I became an Israeli was the opportunity for me to really represent Israel, to give Israel more of an international sports presence,” the US-born Goldstein recently told The Times of Israel.
Israel has just a handful of international-level riders, and only one is a native-born Israeli. All live in the United States or Europe because the requisite training conditions don’t exist at home.
Goldstein’s idea is to bring together at least three of these riders to practice, compete and qualify as a team for the Olympics. No equestrian athlete has ever represented Israel at the Games: Oded Shimoni qualified in dressage in 2004, but sat out the competition after not meeting more stringent standards set by Israel’s Olympic Committee.
“Being an Israeli rider will open up so many doors for me personally, but it will also give Israeli equestrian sports a boost,” said Goldstein, a Grand Prix rider and top finisher at contests including the Hampton Classic Fendi Cup.
Adi Leibovitz, the owner of the Jockey Club Ranch in Rishpon – the oldest, biggest horse farm in Israel – agrees about Goldstein’s potential influence, comparing her to Yael Arad, whose bronze in judo at the 1992 Olympics ignited the sport’s popularity among Israeli youth.
Her arrival comes at a moment of growth for the sport, which he says “has really developed” since the Israel Equestrian Federation, founded in 1964, registered as an NGO in 1985.
“It’s more organized, there’s more knowledge and there’s more infrastructure,” he said of the Israeli equestrian scene, currently home to about 50 commercial stables and hundreds of young students, who usually begin training in middle school.
“However, having someone like Dani ride for Israel promotes the sport within Israel, and gives Israel more exposure internationally.”
It’s premature to gauge Goldstein’s impact, but at least one sign suggests interest is rising: Israel – which has no breeding program of its own – imported more than 200 horses last year.
Nevertheless, riders at all levels face daunting challenges, many of them related to the high costs of training, caring for the animals and traveling to compete. Goldstein estimates that top riders spend between $2,000 and $7,000 monthly, per horse; she herself has five.
Israel’s government currently provides NIS 700,000, or roughly $190,000, annually, most of it for training infrastructure. Beginners receive lessons subsidized by the riding schools, but costs multiply as they advance.
Goldstein’s ability to draw young riders could help alleviate the expense.
Government funding is a function of various legal criteria, including the size of the sport, as well as international activity, Leibovitz explained.
Now 27, Goldstein has been hooked on the sport from the moment a school friend invited her to a riding lesson as a young girl. By 8, the Manhattan resident – whose father works in real estate – was taking summer lessons on Long Island. By middle school, she was commuting 90 minutes daily to train in either Long Island or New Jersey, attending the Professional Children’s School so she could complete her academics in the morning and ride all afternoon.
“I was always an animal lover, and I was always a very competitive person,” the show jumper reflected. “I just always loved the adrenaline rush – both my own and the horse’s.”
She found she bonded quickly with her equine teammates. “There’s a lot of energy, and it’s two different minds working together,” she said.
Goldstein’s devotion to the sport continued during her freshman year at Duke University, when she would fly every weekend to train at Starwyn Farms, the riding facility her family owns in Wellington, Fla. But she gave up that grueling routine to focus on her studies for the next three years.
“I always knew I would go back to riding,” recalled Goldstein, who now sustains the property by buying and selling horses, providing training facilities and renting out parts of the farm.
After several post-college years as an amateur rebuilding her skills, she went pro in 2012. Her new status means she jumps at the 1.60-meter Grand Prix level, the qualifying category for the World Cup and Olympics.
Although Goldstein formally made aliya almost three years ago, she is still based, for training purposes, at her family’s Florida farm, where she spoke by phone to The Times of Israel.
She practices 10 hours per day on the horses, six and a half days per week, and also cross-trains with running and yoga. From November to May, she lives in Florida, and for the rest of the year travels non – stop to competitions mainly in the US and Europe. She tries to get to Israel semi-annually for at least a week at a time, sharing a Tel Aviv apartment with a friend and making sure to visit her favorite falafel stand, close to the beach.
Although she doesn’t speak Hebrew, she hopes eventually to learn and settle in Israel.
“I did become Israeli for the advantage that would give me career-wise,” Goldstein acknowledged. “But I really do love Israel and Israelis, and can see myself living there in the future.”
Leibovitz’s daughter, Nataly, 27, trains with Goldstein in Florida. She started riding at 10, and by 2005 was the captain of Israel’s junior team. Now jumping at the 1.45-meter level, she left Israel to progress.
“If you are at 1.30 meters, then you are considered a successful rider in Israel, and at that point you need to move on to Europe or the US in order to do well,” she said.
“I’ve learned determination and motivation from Dani,” Leibovitz continued. “I didn’t think it would be possible to form a team for the Olympics, but Dani convinced me, and that has made a difference in my riding and planning.”
Elad Yaniv, the only Israeli-born rider currently competing at the Grand Prix level, is glad to have a world-class colleague who wants to form an Olympic team as much as he does.
Based in Dusseldorf, Germany, the 34-year-old says he’s been working to locate top Israeli and Jewish (and therefore potentially Israeli) riders.
The search has extended beyond humans.
“There are good horses owned by Jewish owners worldwide,” he explained. “If everyone Jewish put their resources into the same pot for Israel’s sake, we could have a team in time for the Olympics.”
Now 22, Bluman moved alone, while still a teenager, to Florida in 2007 to train. But as much as he’d like to ride for Israel at the next Olympics, the timing may be off. “There might not be enough time for me to qualify as an Israeli,” Bluman said.
Despite the challenges ahead, the idea, at least, is out of the gate.
Photo: Raised in New York, Goldstein competes under the Israeli flag and wears her adopted country’s colors when she rides. (Courtesy of Danielle Goldstein).
Photo: Like its owner, Goldstein’s horse sports the Star of David during competitions. (Courtesy of Danielle Goldstein).
Photo: Danielle Goldstein has big plans for equestrian in Israel, but continues to train in her native US because of its superior facilities. (Courtesy of Danielle Goldstein).