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Ice dancing team hopes to build winter legacy for Israel

By Jamie Guzzardo, CNN
Israel's Alexandra Zaretsky and Roman Zaretsky perform at the 2010 European Figure Skating Championships.
Israel's Alexandra Zaretsky and Roman Zaretsky perform at the 2010 European Figure Skating Championships.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Brother and sister team is representing Israel in ice dancing
  • Roman and Alexandra Zaretsky hope to inspire kids in Israel to take up the sport
  • Born in Belarus, they moved to Israel, but came to U.S. for better training facilities
  • They were 22nd at the 2006 games but feel they can do better in Vancouver

New York (CNN) -- A country with a Mediterranean climate and sparse snowfall, Israel is seldom considered a viable competitor in winter sports.

So when Roman Zaretsky and his sister Alexandra take the ice in Vancouver on Friday, they will be skating for more than just a medal. The ice dancing pair hope to show the world that Israel can be a fierce competitor, no matter what the season.

For Roman Zaretsky, 27, the weather was never a deterrent and competing in the Winter Games was always the goal.

"I always knew I wanted to be in the Olympics, since I was 10," Zaretsky says.

Zaretsky and Alexandra Zaretsky, 22, who is called Sasha, were taught to skate by their mother when they were young. The siblings began ice dancing, a form of figure skating that focuses more on choreography and draws from the world of ballroom dancing.

"I don't remember a moment of life without skating," Roman Zaretsky said. "In Russia, that was one of the biggest sports and then it kind of became my life slowly. Then we started skating together and it became our life."

The Zaretskys were born in Minsk, Belarus, under the former Soviet Union. Their family decided to leave the country as soon as it was possible and moved to Israel. They settled in Metula, a city near the Lebanese border, which boasts the country's only regulation size ice rink.

Metula held a number of challenges for the two young skaters. The Zaretskys often found themselves with little time on the ice, because they had to share it with other skaters and hockey players, who would come to the rink to practice.

"Everything is possible. If you want to be there, you'll be there, so just work hard!"
--Roman Zaretsky
Video: Skaters better with age
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"The ice time was not enough. We had 45 minutes a day and we need much more than that," Sasha Zaretsky said. "Usually one practice here is an hour and a half, so it's not enough to become an Olympic athlete."

Living and practicing so close to Lebanon's border also meant dealing with warfare and instability. They had to evacuate the area several times, and the ice rink itself was bombed three times while they were living there.

Despite the difficulties, the pair continued training under their mother's tutelage until she had taught them everything she knew.

"Our mom was coaching us until we reached the moment where she said, 'OK, I cannot give you anymore,' " Roman Zaretsky said. " 'You need to go somewhere else if you want to move on.' "

So in 2001, when Roman was 17 and Sasha 13, they left home for the United States, where, for the second time in their lives, they had to adjust to a new culture and learn a new language. They decided to settle in New Jersey, one of several East Coast states renowned for its excellent skating coaches.

For the past three years, the Zaretskys have been coached by Galit Chait, a former Olympic ice dancer. Chait has known the siblings for a long time and even helped pave the way for their Olympic appearances.

Along with her partner, Sergei Sakhnovski, Chait competed in Winter Games three times, including the 2002 Winter Olympics where she placed sixth overall.

However, Chait and Sakhnovski did not receive much funding from the Israeli government in the beginning, and Chait's parents often supported them.

"We were the pioneers. We didn't get money until we started placing and getting medals," Chait said. "Roman and Sasha have it a little bit better than we did."

Although funding is still hard to come by, Chait's father, Boris, has provided the majority of the money for the Zaretskys. Training Olympic athletes can bear a hefty price, because there is also a lot of work done off the ice.

In addition to a coach and booking time on the ice, a choreographer, a Pilates trainer, a stretch coach, a weight training coach, a masseuse and a costume designer are necessary.

"It is a project. It's not only money, you become involved in the everyday life of these kids," Boris Chait said. "You become like a second father or a foster family."

But it is a project the Chait family is willing to undertake in order to help build a legacy in Israel and cater to the large percentage of the population from the former Soviet Union. Boris Chait believes Soviet culture, even when transplanted into a warm climate, is still intricately entwined with winter sports. He is confident that this segment of the country wants to see Israel compete in the Winter Games and he said he believes the Zaretskys can display Israel's competitiveness in Vancouver this year.

The siblings made their first Olympic appearance in 2006, where they finished 22nd. They had only learned they had qualified two weeks before the ceremonies began and were in awe of the entire experience. This time, however, they feel confident they will do better. Their coach agrees.

"They've been skating really well this year and it's been a really good year for them," Chait said.

The Zaretskys recently placed seventh in the European Figure Skating Championships in Tallinn, Estonia, and have been practicing diligently for the Olympic Games in Vancouver. While they would love to bring home a medal, they are also grateful for the opportunity to represent their country.

"Our country never won an Olympic medal, so we're hoping for a medal, but placing in the top 10 would be amazing," Roman Zaretsky said.

Win or lose, the Zaretskys are hoping to inspire kids back home to pick up the sport and to aim for the Olympics.

"Everything is possible," Zaretsky said. "If you want to be there, you'll be there, so just work hard!"

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