Israel Mixed Medley Relay Squad Turns Heads with Finals Berth

GORBENKO Anastasia ISR Israel WOMEN - 200M INDIVIDUAL MEDLEY - FINAL Swimming Budapest - Hungary 22/5/2021 Duna Arena XXXV LEN European Aquatic Championships Photo Andrea Staccioli / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto
Anastasia Gorbenko; Photo Courtesy: Andrea Staccioli / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

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Israel Mixed Medley Relay Squad Turns Heads with Finals Berth

Itay Goldfaden wasn’t sure what the Israel mixed medley relay team could do Thursday night, but he was sure it was going to be good.

He’d watched the men’s 800 freestyle relay not just qualify for the Tokyo Olympics but jump to 10th in a national record. The 25-year-old had seen the way swimmers like Andi Murez and Anastasia Gorbenko have brought Israeli swimming into the international spotlight.

So whatever was going to happen in the first Olympic mixed medley relay prelims, Goldfaden felt confident in the Israeli foursome. What occurred, though, was beyond even Goldfaden’s dreams.

The Israel mixed medley relay of Gorbenko, Goldfaden, Gal Cohen and Murez went from the 15th seed to a finals berth in eighth, their time of 3:43.94 a cut of more than four seconds off their previous best.

“Swimming with those guys was really useful,” Goldfaden said. “I think we all used the confidence that Nastiya was bringing into the race because we know she can sprint fast when the time is right. Same with Gal, he had a great race in the 2IM. So going into the relay, we all knew that we could do something good. I don’t know if we thought about actually making finals. We knew we were going to swim fast, but just by swimming with those guys, it was really fun. I’m excited.”

For Goldfaden, it’s a first major finals, at Euros, Worlds or the Olympics. But with Israel’s burgeoning swim program, those kinds of results are becoming more and more common.

Gorbenko is a huge reason why. She notched the country’s first European championship in May. She also made the 100 back finals at the Tokyo Olympics, finishing eighth. Her semifinal time in that event, 59.30 seconds, set a national record, one of six events for which the versatile swimmer qualified for Tokyo.

Gorbenko brought that confidence into the final, and it rubbed off on her teammates. She also proved to be the perfect choice for the first leg given that she swam against four men, doing so with the steely confidence to stay focused on her race alone. They were eighth at the first handoff, but in the position they needed to be relative to their best times.

“I saw my 100 back in the finals and the semis, and it gave me the confidence to think I could open fast for the team,” she said. “I went out in a good place. It’s something different to swim with a relay than an individual. It’s much more fun because you are swimming this together and not alone and you have a group around you.”

Murez brought the race home. All eight teams in the second heat anchored with women, as the strategic jockeying in the first Olympic running of the event continues to refine itself. Murez breathes to her right, so she couldn’t see the field from her spot in lane 8 on the way home. But she knew she’d be close if she put her head down and went.

She did, getting to the wall with a split of 53.64, tied for the third fastest in her heat. It was fifth in the faster of the two preliminary heats, which was enough to outtouch Japan (3:44.15) and Germany (3:44.19) from the first heat for a finals spot.

“It’s amazing,” Murez said. “There aren’t really words for it. When I touched, I saw fifth and they thought that we were in, so I trusted them and celebrated once we were officially in.”

The Israel mixed medley relay’s national record is one of five at the Tokyo Olympics by Israeli swimmers. The men’s 800 free chopped more than three seconds off its qualifying time for a national mark of 7:08.65. Cohen, Daniel Namir, Tomer Frankel and Denis Loktev, who when he wasn’t making other headlines also set a 200 free national record, comprised that team. Getting two relays there in and of itself is an accomplishment.

Murez set the 100 free record at 54.06 seconds, though she didn’t emerge from prelims, tying for 22nd.

The result is a profound one for the four swimmers involved. But they also hope that it and the other accomplishments from the 11-strong delegation to Tokyo can help perpetuate the growth of Israeli swimming.

“I think it’s great,” Murez said. “Even through social media and text messages, I’ve received so much support, even from the young swimmers in Israel. I think we’re just showing them how good we can be, and we’re just the start of it.”