When Israeli Olympian Ariel “Arik” Zeevi was just starting out, he set a goal of reaching the top seven in his weight class at the 1997 judo World Championship in Paris.
The 20-year-old native of the Tel Aviv area reached that goal and, satisfied, promptly lost his next match. He was OK with that until he watched some of his friends win bronze medals.
“I got angry,” he said, realizing that he should have been aiming higher. “It’s very difficult to gain motivation when you’re satisfied.”
Zeevi, now 40, learned that day not to settle for anything, and, after retiring from a judo career that included four European Championships, a silver medal at the 2001 World Championships and a bronze medal at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, he now spreads his message as a motivational speaker.
Zeevi spoke Dec. 6 at the Kaiserman JCC, part of a six-day U.S. trip that included stops in New York City and Detroit.
His presentation included a slide featuring a Michelangelo quote that summarized his message: “The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark.”
Zeevi noted that your peer group will try to protect you, which can be a mistake, since you don’t know their agendas.
“People around you will tell you not to go for the challenge,” he said. “Sometimes it’s not bad to lose; it’s a wakeup call.”
As an example, Zeevi described his experience at the 2001 World Championships, where he lost his first-round match in 24 seconds. Devastated, Zeevi ignored the advice of others and instead entered the “open” division, which featured much heavier judoka (practitioners of judo). That figured to make him a huge underdog.
He won a silver medal.
“The most important thing is to be in the present and clear out the past,” he said. “You always need to focus on the next game.”
Zeevi, who is the only Israeli athlete to complete in four Olympic Games, concluded his career in 2012, becoming the oldest person to win a European Championship.
Zeevi still trains and spars about once a week, but has turned his attention to his motivational speaking and The Israeli Foundation for Olympic Excellence (IFOE), a nonprofit organization he founded. The IFOE “hires and funds professional Olympic-grade coaches who scout, support and train talented Israeli children and youth,” according to its website. Judo, swimming, tennis, gymnastics, beach volleyball and BMX biking are target sports.
He noted that Israeli athletes have won only nine Olympic medals, while countries with a population similar to Israel’s 7.9 million have won many more. For example, Bulgaria, with 7.4 million residents, has won 217.
Some of that disappointment stems from the mentality Zeevi is fighting to prevent.
“We are all aiming for a very low target,” he said.
Ruth Reiner, the IFOE’s vice president of development, said the trip was the organization’s first fundraising tour of the U.S.
“Israel really is a melting pot of potential,” she said.