Rotem Ishay is still an Israeli citizen. But if he makes it to the starting line at the 2016 Olympic mountain bike race, he’ll be representing more than his native country.
“Yes, I’ll be representing Israel. But the truth is, I’m representing Durango,” Ishay said in a recent interview. “If it wasn’t for Durango, if it wasn’t for Fort Lewis College, I wouldn’t be racing bikes today.
“The Durango cycling community is what made me able to think about the Olympics.”
Ishay, now 28, came to Durango in 2008 and graduated from FLC with an exercise science degree in December 2012. He wanted to stay here and continue racing – as he’d done very successfully in college – so he took a position as director at the Durango Performance Center (as chronicled in this column March 30). His life revolves around the center and cycling.
There are a few hurdles to overcome before the Olympic Committee of Israel would consider sending him to the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, but Ishay is no stranger to obstacles. He’s managed to live outside his comfort zone and excel in his sport on a national level in two countries.
He was only 9 when he began riding mountain bikes. He and his father would drive a little way from Netanya, a city of about 185,000 just north of Tel Aviv. By age 15, he was racing.
“I got pretty good at it pretty quickly,” Ishay said. “It was kind of my escape to freedom.”
But his rise in the sport was curtailed by a mandatory three-year conscription in the military. Duties left him little time to train, and his fitness level waned.
“I still had a lot of passion for racing,” he said. “I couldn’t express it.”
When his military service ended, Ishay wanted to avoid the European cycling scene, which, he said, forces you to become a “monk,” doing little but think bikes and ride bikes. He talked to two cycling club friends in Israel, Assaf Yogev and Yarden Gazit, who had found Fort Lewis and were racing for the Skyhawks.
“It’s different over here,” they told him.
And once he arrived, Ishay wholeheartedly agreed. He could attend classes and still race bikes in a community that embraced the sport – the perfect combo. And the people were welcoming.
“I came over here and fell in love (with Durango),” he said.
By the time he’d finished at FLC in 2012, Ishay had won national collegiate titles in several disciplines, including mountain bike cross country and short track. He clung to a brief hope in 2012 that Israel would qualify for an Olympic mountain bike slot, but it didn’t happen.
There’s optimism for 2016, though. Israel must be among the top 23 countries in compiling world-ranking points, and currently, it is 21st. With three strong riders – in contrast with just one (Ishay) in 2012 – the goal is within reach.
Ishay will probably battle it out with Shlomi Haimy for the Olympic spot. The two have traded off winning Israeli national titles for several years. Ishay said a third cyclist, Guy Niv – whom Ishay is coaching – also is doing well. Israel’s Olympic representative will be chosen in May 2016.
“Ultimately, it will be decided by the riders’ performance over the upcoming 13 months,” Gazit, a 2009 FLC grad, said in an email. Gazit now lives in Tel Aviv and is technical director of the Israel Cycling Federation. He keeps in touch consistently with Ishay but says he doesn’t really coach.
“As an economics major and a roadie, I am less of an expert in this field, so I mostly try to stay out of the way,” Gazit said. “I also try to deal with the bureaucracy and logistics, so that Rotem can focus on training, racing and recovering.”
Having three worthy competitors has encouraged the country’s Olympic committee to increase support for its top mountain bikers such as Ishay.
“They now believe in us,” Ishay said. “They realize the chances are very good for us to have one rider. Things are looking well.”
The first two major tests will come in Europe in May, with World Cup races May 23-24 in the Czech Republic and May 30-31 in Germany. Later, the World Cup will visit North America, with events Aug. 1-2 in Quebec and Aug. 8-9 in New York’s Catskill Mountains.
Meanwhile, Ishay raced April 18 at the renowned Sea Otter Classic in California, then flew to Central America for a Costa Rica national series race last weekend. He hopes to turn around what’s been a slow start for him this spring.
He has spent the last two-plus years as director of the Durango Performance Center, whose mission is to test high-performance athletes in high-altitude and other conditions. He’s able to stay in the U.S. on a work visa.
His boss at the center, cardiologist Dr. Bruce Andrea, also is one of his biggest fans. To Andrea’s son, Benjamin, he’s “Uncle Rotem.” Although the racing takes Ishay away periodically from Durango, it also goes hand in hand with his work.
“You are your own subject matter in a way,” Andrea said.
Insights from his own training give Ishay ideas on how to improve the performance lab, Andrea said.
Between his job and training, it’s a challenging lifestyle. And keeping an international race calendar is not cheap. Israel is helping a bit, and Ishay’s main sponsor, Jamis Bicycles, has been good to him for seven years now. But, although he’s not begging, he could use more support – whether it’s for food or body work such as physical therapy.
Although Ishay misses his family – it’s a grueling 20-hour plane trip from Durango to Tel Aviv, where his parents are – he has good friends here.
“It really feels like this is my home now.”
firstname.lastname@example.org. John Peel writes a weekly human-interest column.