Itai Chammah represented Israel at the 2008 Olympics in the 200m backstroke. Itai will not be competing in London, however we were lucky enough to have a chat with him.
When did you start swimming?
I started swimming when I was 6 years old, in my home town of Yavne (which is about 20 minutes south of Tel-Aviv).
When did you know you wanted to be in the Olympics?
Ever since I started to swim, I knew I wanted to be the best I can be, my big breakthrough didn’t happen until I was 18 (!). Then I knew I wanted to make the Olympics and represent my country at the Games.
How did your commitment to sports change your childhood?
As a child, everything evolved around my swimming. My parents woke up at 5am to drive me to morning practices, and my mom would make me food to have between the practices. In school, I didn’t go to most of the class trips, and rarely hung out with school friends outside of school. It did’t bother me, because I knew I was doing something that is much bigger than a school trip or class party. I had a lot of friends, but they all knew that I was busy all the time outside of school. Looking back I don’t regret it, I was given the opportunity to travel to so many places in the world, and to meet so many different people because of swimming. Moreover, the sacrifices finally paid off when I was selected for Beijing 2008 in my race, the 200 meters backstroke.
What is your first memory of the Olympics? I am not sure if it is my first memory, but it is the strongest memory I have from the Olympics is from the opening ceremony, it was crazy. I remember walking together with all the Israeli athletes around the track, waving to the crowd, and amidst the mass of people, I managed to spot an Israeli flag waving at us. I still get chills just thinking about it. I remember I was excited, and told myself
“You did it… You finally did it.”
Who are your role models? One of my role models is the Israeli swimmer Miki Halika, he is one of the best Israeli swimmers of all time. I admire his hard work and his determination to succeed. I trained with him towards the end of his career, and enjoyed every minute of it. I also really look up to Aaron Piersol, the World and Olympic record holder in 100 and 200 meters backstroke, who quit swimming just a year ago. I had the privilege to go to Texas and train with him for a week. He is an amazing person. He helped me a lot with my backstroke technique, and also with the psychological side of swimming.
What was your biggest challenge prior to getting to the Olympics?
Prior to qualifying for the Olympics, I was faced with a few challenges, the biggest of which was combining two programs in one year. When I made the Olympic cut, I was a just a few months away from starting my college career at Ohio-State, and was at the end of what was my freshman year. I decided to train (and study) at OSU from September 2007 until March 2008, then took an Olympic waiver and returned to train with the Israeli Olympic team. It turned out to be the right choice. I was happy with the way I swam at the Games, and then I went back to continue my sophomore year in college.
What were your expectations heading into Beijing?
At Beijing 2008, I wanted to proudly represent Israel, and make it to the semi-final in 200 backstroke. I ended up equaling my personal best, and win my heat. However it was not enough to make it to the semis, I finished 27th. I was very disappointed, I knew I had a lot more in me, but I guess that’s sports.
Is there anything about sport in Israel that you wish you could fix?
Sports in Israel, like many countries, focus mostly on soccer, which is very annoying. Our soccer isn’t great, and I’m sometimes embarrassed to watch games on TV. In the last couple of years swimming in Israel has had achieved some awesome accomplishments. I hope the Israeli public will understand that individual sports such as swimming is the future of sports in Israel, and will support the sport more.
Besides swimming, what sports at the Olympics do you like to watch? At the Olympics, I really enjoy watching Tennis, because I really like it. I also like to watch our Judo guys competing.
What has been your biggest challenge since you participated?
My biggest challenge since I came back from the Olympics is defiantly trying to repeat my times from 4 years ago. Even though I am 26 years old, I feel I am not ready to quit swimming yet. It is very hard to do that here in Israel, mostly financially, but I try to keep my head above water, and keep training hard.
At Beijing, did you meet any people that made you go ‘wow’! At the games one of my dreams came true, and I met Rafael Nadal, who took the gold medal that year. It was at a VIP section of a club, through a mutual friend, another Israeli swimmer Guy Barnea. I have always looked up to him as an athlete, and it was really really nice to meet him.
How do you see your post-swimming life looking? I haven’t decided yet what I want to do after swimming. I am really debating whether I want to stay in the field and coach, maybe start a swimming school, or leave it completely and start something new. I guess time will tell.
Itai thank you for the great interview. We wish you well in all your future endeavours!