Three years ago, kayaking coach Roei Lev found aspiring Olympian Ilya Podpolnyy crying on the steps of the Jordan Valley Sprint Kayak Club overlooking the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee).
Podpolnyy, then 17 years old, had just been disqualified from the Israeli kayaking championship. He couldn’t survive the heats. He didn’t make the start line. He was devastated — and he had no one with whom to share his hopes, his dreams and his disappointment. His divorced parents still live in Russia, and he has been estranged from his father since making aliyah at age 15.
“I said to him, ‘You’re a young man. I just met you. I saw how you paddled. If you want support and a good family — if you want to get ahead — I recommend you come to the Jordan Valley,’” Lev recalled in an interview at the kayak club’s lounge on April 18, shortly after this year’s Israeli kayaking championship.
An hour earlier, dozens of young kayakers sat on those same steps, looking up to Podpolnyy, now 20, as he stood on the podium to receive five gold medals — those same youngsters who had enthusiastically cheered “Go Ilya!” like brothers at the edge of the Kinneret as he won the individual 200-meter, 500-meter, 1,000-meter and 6-kilometer races.
“Today he decided he was going to win, and no less,” said Ronit Shaked, the secretary general of the Israel Canoe Association, who runs a medical sports therapy clinic and is also the Jordan Valley Sprint Kayak Club’s unofficial photographer. Always with a camera around her neck, she is documenting what she called Podpolynyy’s “road to the Olympics.” A mother figure, she had given Podpolnyy a pep talk that morning to ease his nerves.
“He decided he was an athlete,” she said. “That’s it. A champion.”
Lev and Shaked were eager to fill in the blanks when Podpolnyy was at a loss for words during the trio’s interview.
Podpolnyy’s Hebrew is almost fluent, even though he didn’t speak a word of it when he stepped off the plane at Ben Gurion Airport in 2010 wearing a Russian coat and boots. He speaks mostly in single sentences, the way Sylvester Stallone speaks in the “Rocky” franchise — the tough guy with a stoic veneer whose drive overcomes hardship. Podpolnyy has the biceps and abs of an action star, with bright green eyes and brown skin that make one think of The Hulk. Today, he stands at a towering 6 feet, 3 inches and weighs 205 pounds.
“She said to finish all that I started — not to give up, and to stay strong until the end,” Podpolnyy said, finally adding to Shaked’s story.
One of Israel’s top athletes, Podpolnyy started paddling at age 11 near the Caspian Sea. “I came with a friend just to check it out in the summer. I started to paddle. I saw the nature, and I loved it,” he said.
He followed his sister in making aliyah with the Na’ale Project, which brings teenagers to complete high school in Israel with the hope that their parents will follow. Upon completing boarding school near Netanya, he joined the Maccabi Zvulun Kayaking Club, where he didn’t receive the support he craved as a new recruit to the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).
That’s where Lev came in. “He knew there was a problem, and he said, ‘We’ll help you. With family. With everything,’” Podpolnyy recalled.
Today, Podpolnyy lives in a small one-bedroom apartment in Kibbutz Degania, and Yuval Dagan, the kayak club’s general manager, has embraced him as a son — welcoming him for Friday night meals and family trips. Having been granted Outstanding Athlete status by the IDF, Podpolnyy is able to train at least four hours a day and compete abroad.
“It’s a profession,” Shaked explained, although kayaking, unlike other sports, holds little promise of financial reward. Podpolnyy receives some support from the Israel Olympics Committee, but the club is admittedly going into debt investing in his Olympic potential.
Lev and Shaked both credit Podpolnyy for making the sport popular again in Israel. Kayaking, sailing, and judo are the only sports to bring the Jewish state Olympic medals, with Michael Kolganov taking the kayaking bronze in Sydney in 2000. While shy at an interview, Podpolnyy has a goofy and fun-loving side, which aside from his superior athleticism, magnetizes international teammates. This past winter, he revived the club’s status as a sought-after winter training destination after the Swiss, Finnish, Russian, and Danish kayaking champions accepted his personal invitation to train on the Kinneret with the Jordan Valley Sprint Kayak Club.
“He’s the diplomat,” Shaked said. “If we didn’t have Ilya, we wouldn’t have been in the world championships. If we didn’t have Ilya, we wouldn’t have made connections with these athletes. If we didn’t have Ilya, we wouldn’t have people finding us through Facebook.”
Podpolnyy has his sights set on the 2020 Tokyo Olympics because he has not clocked in enough world competitions to compete in the 2016 Rio Games. He’ll make up for lost time this summer as he competes internationally in Slovakia, Germany, and at the World Championships in Milan. For every competition, he has requested that his canoe be colored blue and white — the colors of Israel’s flag.
“I want to bring achievements for the country, the club, and all the trainers who worked hard” Podpolnyy said, not shy anymore.