Windsurfer Gal Fridman swears he felt all of Israel -- and the 11 slain Israelis from the 1972 Munich Olympics -- pumping his board for him on a brilliantly sunny Wednesday afternoon. "As if I was somewhere else, and the board was moving by itself in the final meters."
When he crossed the finish line, and realized he had won Israel's first gold medal in any sport, he wrapped himself in the Israeli flag and plunged into the water, his tears mixing with the salt water of Saronic Gulf.
More tears would come six hours later, during the waterfront medal ceremony, when several hundred Israelis packed a gulf-side arena and belted out "HaTikvah" (The Hope) as the Israeli flag rose to the top of the middle flagpole. Fridman, whose first name means "wave" in Hebrew, was mobbed by fans and security guards had to escort him to safety.
"I didn't expect to see so many Isreali people, it was amazing," said Fridman, 28, who also won a bronze medal in Atlanta in 1996. "I feel inside the happiness of my country. I sang the anthem as loud as I could, but nobody could hear me because everyone was screaming."
Fridman's victory is a happy chapter in what has been a somber Olympic history for Israel. He said that when he gets home, he will take his medal to the memorial for the murdered 11 Olympians, and "show it to them, to show they are always with us, to show that we have moved on, and that we are winning."
The win over Fridman's friend Nikolaos Kaklamanakis of Greece reached far beyond sports lines. Israel had won one silver and three bronze medals in 12 previous Olympics, and judoka Ariel Zeevi won a bronze last week, but this gold medal meant so much more to the Israeli people.
"A lot of people in Israel will cry, and for a change, the tears will be for a good reason," said Fridman's brother Yuval, who jumped into the water and celebrated with Gal. "This medal will lift our spirits as a country. It is very important for the world to see that there is not only fighting in Israel, that it is a very nice country with quiet places and good people and sportsmen, and not only what you see on television."
To understand just how significant Fridman's victory is to Israel, one needed only see the pained expression on the face of Oded David Kramer, a columnist for Yediot Aharanoth, who was having a hard time coming up with words special enough for this story.
"I am sitting here two hours staring at my blank computer screen and I don't know where to begin," Kramer said. "This is the most important story I've ever written, and I'm supposed to be the man with words, and I cannot find the words. . . . Every time we have a happy day like this, it is a victory over terrorism and the suffering that dominates our lives.
"This is anything but a gold medal story. This is about Israel trying to be a normal country, just once. We have 5,000 years of history in Israel, and this is a day that will be remembered. I will be able to tell my children I was here while this happened."
Fridman's race was huge news in Israel. Businesses and government offices took a break from 1 to 3 p.m. to watch the race, which was broadcast live. Israelis from Haifa to Jerusalem to Tel Aviv ran into the streets to celebrate. And the afternoon news bulletin, which usually leads with terrorist attacks, led with Fridman and only made a brief mention of world news.