Interview'I’m prouder than ever to be Israeli'

Tel Aviv to Tahiti: Surfer Anat Lelior aims to ride Olympic waves to new heights

Unlike the rest of Israel’s delegation to the 2024 Games in Paris, the two-time Olympian will be heading to French Polynesia, hoping to improve on her performance in Tokyo

Amy Spiro is a reporter and writer with The Times of Israel

Anat Lelior competes during the first round of the women's surfing competition at the 2020 Summer Olympics, July 25, 2021, at Tsurigasaki Beach in Ichinomiya, Japan. (AP Photo/ Francisco Seco/ File)
Anat Lelior competes during the first round of the women's surfing competition at the 2020 Summer Olympics, July 25, 2021, at Tsurigasaki Beach in Ichinomiya, Japan. (AP Photo/ Francisco Seco/ File)

Anat Lelior will compete at the 2024 Paris Olympics — but she won’t be in Paris. Or anywhere near it.

As an Olympic surfer, Lelior and the rest of the boardriders will take to the waves in Tahiti, French Polynesia – almost 10,000 miles away from Paris, setting a new record for the Olympic contest held furthest away from the host city.

The locale is bittersweet for the Israeli surfer, whose debut Olympic experience in Tokyo was marred by the COVID pandemic, and who will spend the Paris games far removed from the camaraderie of the Olympic village and its 11,000 athletes from all corners of the globe.

“It’s a little disappointing to be far from Paris, but Tahiti is one of the dream locations for surfers,” Lelior told The Times of Israel on the sidelines of an event for Israeli Olympians at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem last month. “So I’m happy to be there, I’m happy to surf in one of the places I’ve dreamed of surfing – so I’m happy, but it’s still a little bit of a bummer.”

Lelior, 24, a native of Tel Aviv, first started surfing at age 5, taking to the waves with her father at their local beach. Excelling at the sport, she quickly started taking part in local competitions and soon began competing overseas as a teenager, working her way up through the ranks and racking up medals and accolades.

In 2019, Lelior qualified for the Tokyo Games – which saw the debut of Olympic surfing – after she finished as the top European contender at the International Surfing Association’s World Surfing Games in Miyazaki, Japan.

Israeli surfer Anat Lelior leaves a practice session at Tsurigasaki Beach at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics in Ichinomiya, Japan, July 21, 2021. (AP Photo/David Goldman/File)

At the COVID-delayed Tokyo Games, held in 2021, Lelior – who was suffering from a hip injury which later required surgery – failed to advance to the third round, after she was knocked out of contention following her first two heats. She competed at the Olympics during her mandatory IDF service and was granted special dispensations in order to travel and practice.

She told a surfing news outlet in an interview earlier this year that “it took me a long time to recover because they missed out on some problems… when I started surfing again, [I reinjured myself] again,” she recounted. “It took me another five-to-six months to go back [to normal]… I’m still to this day trying to accept that the amount of time it takes for me to recover is different than everybody else; it doesn’t mean I’m weaker. It just is what it is.”

Earlier this year, Lelior secured her spot in the upcoming Paris Games at the ISA World Surfing Games in Puerto Rico, finishing sixth overall out of the 113 female competitors. And with surfing returning to the 2024 Games, with an expanded 24 female athletes vying for medals, compared to 20 in Tokyo, the competition is even stiffer.

Anat Lelior holds her surfboards as she arrives for a training session at the 2020 Summer Olympics, July 23, 2021, at Tsurigasaki Beach in Ichinomiya, Japan. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)

This time around, Lelior is coming in as an Olympic veteran, ready to hit the waves in Tahiti.

“I feel good… There’s a lot of excitement, a lot of fears and pressures, but I’m positive,” she said. “I think I’m more ready for the Olympic experience overall… I’m not too stressed and I’m mostly here to enjoy myself.”

Lelior has already been to Tahiti twice in recent months to get a feel for the water off the coast of French Polynesia.

“The Tahiti venue is definitely one of a kind. You can really only practice on those waves in the place itself,” she said. From a surfing perspective, she said, “it’s everything you could ask for.”

Lelior came up in the sport in Israel as one of the only serious female competitors, so much so that her family fought and won to allow her to compete against boys locally. While surfers are a common site along Israel’s popular coastal beaches, the competitive sport is not a strongly established one in the Jewish state, in part because of the unpredictable winds and water conditions.

Anat Lelior competes in the 2024 International Surfing Association (ISA) World Surfing Games off La Marginal Beach in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, on March 3, 2024. (Ricardo ARDUENGO / AFP)

Could Israeli Olympic success make the sport more popular back at home?

“I don’t know if I’ll personally make a difference, but I know that surfing in general is a cool sport that everyone always enjoys watching,” said Lelior. “I’m happy to represent a sport that brings a little color to life. I believe in this sport, and I believe that we’ll succeed in” boosting its popularity.

Over the past nine months, as some Israeli athletes have faced barriers or boos while competing amid the ongoing Israel-Hamas war, Lelior said she has had largely positive experiences during her contests.

“In surfing, there’s a lot less concern over where you come from as long as you are respectful and represent only the best values of humanity,” said Lelior. “They welcome you with open arms.”

Heading into the Paris Olympics, even with the tensions over the ongoing war and the heightened security threats, Lelior said she is proud to compete under the Israeli flag.

“I think that for me and for all the other athletes, today it is more clear than ever that to be Israeli is a privilege,” she said. “And we’re proud to represent our amazing country… I’m prouder than ever to be Israeli.”

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