April 1, 2009. Lee Korzits is on holiday in Hawaii, doing what she’s done almost every day of her life since she was eight: surfing.
One second, she’s riding the waves, standing tall on her board. The next, she’s being thrown around the merciless sea — “like a rag in a washing machine,” she’d say later.
A fellow surfer had inadvertently crashed into her, his board smashing into her back. Somehow, Korzits maintained consciousness under water, until the waves threw her onto some rocks. Fellow surfers, having witnessed the horror show, dashed toward her and pulled her to safety. Emergency crews evacuated her to the hospital.
Korzits was diagnosed with two broken ribs and a broken leg. It could have been much, much worse. The broken ribs were the consequence of the direct hit from the other surfer’s board. The doctors said it had narrowly missed her spine, and that she was lucky to have survived. “I was given my life as a present,” she would write in a blog a couple of months later, deep into her double rehabilitation — coming off morphine, and trying to regain full movement in her leg.
Nobody ever doubted Lee Korzits’s sporting prowess. At age 14, she was the top female judoka in her age group Israel — and judo wasn’t her main love. At age 19, she became the youngest world champion in the history of windsurfing. But her recovery from that near-fatal accident in Hawaii showed her remarkable resilience, the ferocity of her spirit.
And it’s that combination of prowess and indomitability that, on Tuesday, sees her contesting the medal positions of the women’s windsurfing at the 2012 London Olympics. After winning the eighth of the 11 races in her event on Saturday, Korzits stood in second place overall, just three points behind Spain’s Marina Alabau. But she lost valuable points on Sunday, finishing the 10th race in 11th place. Now tied for second place overall, she found herself 14 points behind Marina Alabau of Spain, and just one point above fourth place. Tuesday’s final, double-point “medal race” will determine the final standings.
Now 28, Korzits won her first world championship in 2003, and the nine years since would make for a great sports movie. It’s a period that saw her announce her retirement in protest at what she called the petty politics of the Israeli sporting world — a threat she fortunately chose not to implement — and then bounce back from that cruel April 1 accident, which could easily have ended her career, to win consecutive world championships in 2011 and 2012.
On Sunday morning, her father said she was calm and ready to win for Israel. But she herself had said after Saturday’s successes that, while she was “enjoying every minute” of the competition, she hadn’t won anything yet.
The current world women’s windsurfing champion was born in Hofit, on the shore of the Mediterranean, in 1984. She took up the sport at the age of eight, along with judo and athletics. Her national judo gold at 14 actually spelled the end of her focus on that sport; she opted to leave the mat and concentrate on the waves.
Winning the 2003 World Championship in Cadiz, Spain — the youngest ever champion at age 19 — she immediately set her sights on Olympic gold. But at the Athens Olympics of 2004, she could only manage a disappointing 13th place. That failure, along with internal bickerings between the Israeli sailing association and the Israeli Olympic association, pushed her to the brink of quitting.
She surprisingly failed to qualify for the ’08 Games in Beijing. And then came the Hawaii trauma.
I thought I was about to die… I felt like a rag in a washing machine
“I thought I was about to die,” Korzits told reporters later. The waves were around five meters high, she recalled. The hands grabbing her when she hit the shore, she said, were like “an angel from heaven” safeguarding her.
Korzits describes herself as someone who “likes to live on the edge,” and, sure enough, 15 months after her accident she was back in international competition. Still, the dangers of her sport were never far away. At the 2010 European Championships in Poland, Korzits was again knocked off her board by a fellow windsurfer, and again trapped under water. She was rescued unconscious after a terrifying couple of minutes.
Undaunted, Korzits won the gold medal at the World Championship competition in Australia last December, and in March 2012 repeated the achievement when she won her second straight world championship, in Cadiz — held early as a pre-tournament for the Olympics.
Korzits was always a big medal hope for the 2012 Games, and her performances have kept her in competition for the top — ready to become the first Israeli woman on the podium since Yael Arad won the country’s first medal, a silver for judo, in Barcelona ’92.
Her event is held at Weymouth, south of London, and Korzits know the waters there well. She took gold at a World Cup event in Weymouth only two months ago. Nobody outside her sport was paying much attention then. All of Israel is watching now.
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