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Donald Sanford, wife Danielle and daughter Amy at the 2015 Israeli championships (Jiro Mochizuki) © Copyright
Feature Tel Aviv, Israel

Love conquers all for Israel's three Beijing medal hopes

Athletes changing their national allegiances is a controversial subject but few would begrudge a trio of athletes success for their adopted homeland of Israel at the forthcoming IAAF World Championships in Beijing, after moving for love rather than money.

Donald Sanford was born in Los Angeles County in California and was a familiar figure on the US collegiate scene after competing for Central Arizona College and then Arizona State University. While studying at the latter, he was second in the 400m at the 2010 NCAA Championships with 45.21, which was his personal best until earlier this season.

However, at his first institution he met Israeli basketball player Danielle Dekel. The pair married in 2008 and Sanford later moved to Israel.

In 2012, he became eligible to compete for Israel and represented them that year at the European Championships and the Olympic Games.

Two years later, he became a national celebrity when he took the bronze medal at last year’s European Championships in Zurich, just the second Israeli to win a medal on the continental stage after 2002 and 2006 pole vault gold medallist Alex Averbukh.

“People in Israel gave me a fantastic welcome home after Zurich, I feel great being here,” said Sanford, who was named the 2014 Israeli Sportsman of the Year, beating off a host of football players.

Sanford, who was an impressive winner of the B race at the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Stockholm on Thursday, is now looking forward to the IAAF World Championships, Beijing 2015 where he is hoping to improve on his recent national record of 45.04, set at the Znamenskiy Memorial meeting in Russia earlier this month.

It might be a stretch to call him a realistic medal hope in Beijing, although a shot at the final is a legitimate bet, but he also hopes to use his outing in the Chinese capital as motivation to propel him back on to the podium at next year’s European Championships in Amsterdam.

Top three triple threat

Triple jumper Hanna Minenko, well-known under her maiden name of Knyazyeva, already knows what it is like to reach a World Championships final, having finished sixth in Moscow two years ago.

Now she has set her sights higher and wants to become her county’s first female medallist on a global stage having taken the bronze medal at the 2015 European Indoor Championships.

At the time of writing she is fifth on the 2015 world list and, like Sanford, she has improved her own national record this year and bounded out to 14.61m in Prague last month.

Born in the Ukrainian capital Kiev, she is married to the former decathlete Anatoly Minenko, who was originally from Kazakhstan but who arrived in Israel in 1997 at the age of 10 with his parents.

She first met Anatoly at a training camp in Yalta. “Anatoly is very nice guy, and he impressed me by the way he was dancing at the disco,” she joked when interviewed at the recent Israeli Championships.

“He is very good dancer. After we met in Yalta, we kept communicating by Skype and emails. When Anatoly proposed to me, it was not easy for me to make up my mind to come to Israel. People in Ukraine said there were lots of problems, it’s dangerous, there’s war and conflict, no sort of normal life.

“But when we got married and I came over here, I myself was very surprised to see how different life is in Israel. I’m very happy with Israelis, with Israel, and with our home in Tel Aviv. Here in Israel, I have no rival and I’m training alone, but I got used to doing it."

Long-distance love affair

Like Minenko, Marharyta Dorozhon originally hails from Ukraine, in her case Dnipropetrovsk.

She became an Israeli citizen last year when she married former 800m runner Alex Bugoslavsky.

Setting the trend for Minenko and Sanford this summer, she set the first of her three national records back in April and caused a mild sensation when she was a surprise winner of the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Oslo last month, unleashing what is currently her personal best of 64.56m.

“Since I got Israeli citizenship last December, I’m very happy with my life in Israel. I joined a new club, Hapoel Emek Hefer, and so far I’m doing much better in my career. In April, I broke the Israeli record in my first competition this year with a throw of 63.34m at the Hadassah Youth Cup in Neurim, Israel.”

Unlike the two other couples, the circumstances behind Dorozhon and Bugoslavsky getting to know each other were rather different, and it was definitely a long-distance affair at the outset.

They actually never met in person for several years but they were communicating by email and social media.

However, when they finally met, in Ukraine, they fell in love right away, and quickly got married.

“There are many Jewish people living in Dnipropetrovsk so it is not so strange to meet and date people of the same faith," said Dorozhon. "But getting married and then coming to Israel was a big step.

“However, I’m very happy to be here and my javelin throwing has greatly improved this year and hopefully I’ll continue to improve in the future," she added. "When my name appeared next to the Israeli flag at my first international competition, it was a great honour for me to represent my new country.

"I’ll do my best for Beijing and the Rio Olympics and hope to get a medal. I’m learning the Israeli national anthem. If I ever happen to get a gold medal, I want to sing the national anthem in Hebrew!”

Jiro Mochizuki for the IAAF