For Yuval Freilich, it all started with tap dancing.
“People make fun of me about it, but I love dancing — any type,” he said. “I love tap dancing.”
As a child of eight or nine, he discovered that fencing required movements very similar to those he’d come to love as a dancer, and he was hooked. Now 19, he’s raking in awards — most recently a sixth-place finish April 8 in the International Fencing Federation’s Junior World Championships in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, a month after his first-place triumph in the Junior European Championships, hosted in Jerusalem.
Although Freilich had hoped for the top spot, he’s not letting the result deter him from his highest goal — an Olympic gold medal in fencing, which he hopes to win in the next decade.
“I dream about being an Olympic champion,” he said. “Right now, it’s a dream. But the aim is to make the dream a reality. If I’m able to do that, nothing would be better.”
Freilich, whose parents are from Sydney, Australia, was born in Israel and grew up in Neve Daniel in the Etzion bloc near Jerusalem. When he’s not traveling for competitions, he spends most of his time at the Wingate Institute, where he is based as an IDF soldier doing office work, close to where he trains with Ohad Balva, head coach at the Kfar Saba Fencing Club.
Balva has worked with the teenager for five years. He’s trained many other top-level fencers, including Noam Mills, who competed in the 2008 Summer Olympics.
“(Freilich) is talented,” Balva said. “He feels the game deep inside. He’s a hard worker, and he wants to progress more and more.”
A fencer for 32 years and coach for 11, Balva said he doesn’t have a doubt that Freilich could win an Olympic medal.
For now, however, the fencing championships are grueling. In last month’s Junior European Championships, whose participants are less than 20 years old, Freilich fenced with one competitor after another, moving up in the ranks. He faced French, English, Swedish and Hungarian foes, finally defeating a Spanish adversary to win it all, qualifying him for a spot in the Junior World Championships.
With hundreds of competitions around the world under his belt, Freilich has won dozens of medals and trophies, including a first-place finish in the Cadet World Championships, a competition for a younger group, held in 2012 in Moscow. But he was the first Israeli to win the European junior competition.
“I don’t think it really matters being the first [Israeli] or 20th to win it,” he said. “I hope that being the first person to do it, I can reach other Jews and people see it can be done.”
He’d gotten close in the same championship two years ago, walking away with a bronze medal.
“This year, I came back and won it,” he said.
That victory sent him to Bulgaria for this year’s Junior World Championships, where he started out as one of a large pool of hopeful fencers, eventually winning enough matches to compete in the top 64. Then the top 32.
He had his eye on the No. 1 spot, but he finally stopped at sixth place.
It was “a wonderful result, even though it’s not first,” said his mother, Rachel Freilich, in an email from Bulgaria.
“Of course everyone is very disappointed, but that is life,” she said. “The competition is fierce, and he is competing against the best fencers in the world.”
Freilich isn’t slowing down. On Friday, he led the Israeli fencing team to a fourth-place finish in the team competition at the World Championships in Bulgaria. He is already training for several upcoming competitions, including the Senior European Championships in June, to be held in Strasbourg, France.
He said he enjoys the high-intensity pressure and quick decision-making demanded in fencing, which is often likened to “physical chess.”
Growing up in a religious Jewish family, Freilich has faced a major challenge — many fencing competitions are held on Saturdays. Although a High Court injunction temporarily forbade the Israel Fencing Association from holding Saturday competitions several years ago, the older tradition has returned and many competitions today conflict with Shabbat.
“I made the decision for myself that if the competition falls on Saturday, I’ll compete,” Freilich said.
“But in the Jewish state, I think it is absolutely ridiculous that children, younger athletes or teenagers should have to deal with that decision — for fencing or any sport — to compete or not to compete. I made the decision; I fence on Saturdays. But it’s still in the back of my mind — is this the right thing to do? I don’t think so. I don’t think anyone should have to do it.”
No matter where he competes — he’s been to Moscow, Budapest, Paris, Buenos Aires, and many other places — Israel is never far from Freilich’s mind.
“Yuval’s drive to succeed in fencing comes from his desire to bring honor to Israel and represent his country to the best of his ability,” Rachel said. “He chose to do this through the category of an elite sportsman in the army,” as opposed to his two older brothers, one of whom served and another one who is currently in elite combat units.
His passion can be difficult on his family, too, he said, but despite the travel demands of his many competitions and the frequency with which they fall on Saturdays, his parents and siblings come along to watch him compete whenever they can. He is the second-youngest of six children.
“When he was younger, we accompanied him as much as possible, and if we couldn’t travel, his siblings took turns to be with him,” Rachel said. “It can be a very lonely experience being away from home.”
Freilich trains several hours each day from Sunday to Thursday and sometimes on Fridays, and he often competes on Saturdays. It’s a big time commitment — and he’s been able to continue doing so through his qualification as an elite athlete in the Israel Defense Forces. He trains at the fencing club for several hours before and after his IDF work every day.
And sometimes, having his family near makes all the difference.
When he’d been declared the champion of the European competition in March, the fierce matches faded away, and there was one moment that stood out in Freilich’s mind.
“Afterward, my mom came and gave me a hug,” he said, “and that was totally the strongest moment of the day.”