By winning a bronze medal in the Men’s Mistral at the 1996 Olympics in Savannah, Gal Fridman joined an exclusive group that counted just a handful of people as its members. When he added a gold medal in the windsurfing division at the 2004 Athens Games, he joined an even more select club, two in fact. And in each case, he is the only member. Fridman is the first Israeli athlete to ever win gold at an Olympics Games, and the only Israeli athlete to have won more than one medal. In a country that has experienced more tragedy than triumph in Olympic history, Fridman has become a national hero. That status, however, won’t earn him any advantage on the water. He’d love to defend his gold medal in Qingdao in 2008, but to do so he must overcome two very difficult challenges. The first is learning a new board. The skinny Mistral has been replaced by the wide RS:X. He also must hold off a hard-charging compatriot, Nimrod Mashiah. At the 2007 Rolex Miami OCR, Fridman finished 10th. Mashiah was hot on his heels in 11th.
You’re in a unique situation in the RS:X. You’re the defending Olympic champion, but it’s a different class this time around. You finished 10th at the Rolex Miami OCR. How do you feel about that result?
I’m happy with it. The first season after the  Olympics, I took one year off completely. It was a good break; I needed that after so many years at the top. Last year I did the year [getting to know] the new board, the RS:X. It’s different from what we used in Athens, but it’s a really good board. This year I’m starting the season more seriously. I started sailing in December. In the beginning of January, I was in Cyprus for another regatta. I won this regatta and came straight to Miami. I was a bit tired in Miami because I’m not in my best shape yet, but I started better in the regatta. I’m happy with a lot of things. Of course my fitness is not in peak, but I know how to bring my fitness to the top again. I’m aiming to hit my peak at the Europeans and Worlds in June and July.
How have you found this board? Is it as much a test of endurance as the Mistral?
It’s the same with endurance, but a little more strength because the sail is bigger. So a little bit more work in the gym as well.
So it’s just as difficult and physical a task as the Mistral was?
If not more. Because to pump this huge sail is even harder.
Are you pumping all the time?
Above 13 knots, we’re almost not pumping upwind, only downwind. When it starts planing, it’s OK.
What do your competitors think about the RS:X? Was it a good change?
I’m happy because I have two Olympic medals in Mistral. I was third in Atlanta, I was world champion in 2002, and in Athens I won the Olympics. So it was good for me because now I have a new challenge, a new class. I feel I’d accomplished everything I could in the Mistral, so now I have something to push me again.
How much does the game change with the new board?
A lot of time we’re going without the centerboard so we’re going really low upwind. It’s changing a lot of the tactics. But in each wind we have different tactics. In light wind it’s more like a Laser because we’re going quite slow. Most of the people, at least the top of the fleet, are going almost the same speed, so it’s more tactical than the IMCO because with the IMCO there were more speed differences in light winds. In the strong winds, there’s a lot of speed difference again, when it’s planing conditions. So every wind has different tactics. Completely different.
How much adjustment are you permitted with the boat?
Nothing. Just setting my footstraps and tuning my sail, that’s what I’m allowed to do.
Does that make getting up to speed in this board relatively easy?
Even when it’s one-design, a lot of the equipment isn’t the same. You need to be sure you’ve got good equipment for the regatta.
Israel has a rather somber history in the Olympics. How does the memory of the 1972 Munich Olympics make it unique to be a member of the Israeli Olympic Team?
Before Athens there was a lot of pressure for me because we’d never won a gold medal. And even during the event there were a lot of expectations from the country because they knew I had a good chance to win the gold medal and be the first gold medalist from Israel. It was very big in Israel and a lot of pressure, before the Olympics and of course during the Olympic because it was held over 10 days. Each time I was at the top, everybody in Israel was watching.
So it was a big deal at home. Yet, from what I’ve read, sports in Israel don’t get a ton of support.
It’s different. There’s support in moral support, but not so much in money support. So that’s why I want to thank my sponsor because without them I’d be doing something else for sure. At my age, when I’m already married and 31-years-old, I need to earn some money as well, not just play for fun like I was a kid.
You took ill the year before the 2000 Olympics and didn’t make the team. How did that affect your resolve? Did you consider going on to something else?
I felt like I was on vacation. It was my sport for a long time, since I was a kid. I was 24 at the time and I felt, “Okay, I’ve never had a real vacation.” I was doing it since I was 13-years-old, racing internationally. So it felt like time off. [When I didn’t qualify] I went to another sport, mountain biking, racing in Israel at a pretty good level. About 2001 I decided I wanted to give myself another chance because I felt my future is in windsurfing.
How hard was it to get back to a world-class level?
It was about putting the work in. But mostly it was harder for the racing because I was unsupported in the beginning. The first year I did races on my own expenses.
It seems like you haven’t always seen eye to eye with the Israeli Sailing Federation. Are you a difficult athlete to coach?
It’s because I want to think of us as very professional and I don’t want to skip any details and I demand the best of the coaches and of myself as an athlete. If my goal is to win regattas, gold in Olympics, I need everything to be perfect and I cannot compromise.
Your training partner Nimrod Mashiah was 11th at the Rolex Miami OCR, right behind you. Does this worry you at all?
I’m training with him. I know it will help him get better. But if I want to go to the Olympics, it’s to be able to defend my title or at least get another Olympic medal. If this guy will beat me then I’m not good enough to do the job, so no problem.
What does it meant to you to be Israel’s most successful Olympic athlete?
Since I won the first gold medal I will already be in the records. Nobody can be the first gold medalist again. It gives me a lot of pride, and I’m happy I was able to do it for my country and for Jews all over the world.
Do you get a lot of support from Jews outside of Israel?
I got a lot. I was visiting a lot of new communities in 2004 and 2005 in the U.S., Europe, and Australia. I didn’t know when I went to those places how much it meant to them. It was really warm and welcoming, it was a fun experience.
People often spoke of the physical toll the Mistral took on the sailors. Is the RS:X less demanding in that regard?
I think this one is a little bit harder because the sail is larger and the mast is stiffer; when you pump your body absorbs all this instead of the mast and the sail.
What about the type of sailor the board attracts? Seems like a lot of the same sailors who were successful in the Mistral class.
It’s the same people. A lot of Formula guys came at first. They thought the board was similar to a Formula board. They were good in certain conditions when it was comfortable, but they couldn’t put in the effort in light winds.
A lot has been made about the lack of wind in Qingdao. You sailed in the Pre-Olympic regatta last August. How was the wind?
The wind was really light. We were sailing in winds where before we would never even think about racing.