Israel has a professional curling team. Yes, you read that correctly. The country that barely sees any ice except in the coldest winter months held its first national team training camp earlier this summer, not in Israel, but in Blaine, Minn.
It was there that two local curlers, Gabriel and Gilad Kempenich, 18 and 21, both born in Israel, earned two out of the five roster spots on Israel’s national curling team that will begin its quest for 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, later this month. “It means a lot to be here,” said Gilad, “to be the new generation of team Israel and to show the world us small countries can curl, too.”
The team will have only 2 1/2 days of practice in Winnipeg, Canada, before it begins international tournament play in preparation for the European Class C Championships in Netherlands later this year. However, just because Israel is the “new team” on the block, Gilad says, “We want to establish ourselves as a team not to be trifled with, we want to medal in the Netherlands.” In contrast, Gabriel, or Gabe as he prefers to be called, was a little unsure of how the team would fare, saying how the team plays depends on how things go in Canada. “I think it’s a matter of a team jelling and coming together as a team. Getting the team dynamic going and getting ready to face other international-caliber teams,” said Gabe. “Chances wise, we don’t know, since we don’t know the skill level of those teams there’s no real indication of how we’ll fare. We five have never played as a team.” As far as “jelling” goes, having a brother on the team makes the process that much easier. “It feels great,” said Gilad. “It’s really important to build chemistry as a team and to have one of the people there I’ve known forever – I know his strengths, his weaknesses, I can talk to him about whatever.”
According to Gilad, the Israeli team must start on the lowest rung of international play, “Class C.” If the team places either second or first in the tournament, it advances to Class B, where if it wins, it will face the eighth-place team from Class A for a bid into the World Championships in Canada. As Gilad explained, the ICF has decided to start this team at just the right time since curling is done in a four-year cycle, with each cycle starting anew after the winter Olympics. Gilad says the goal for year one is to get qualified and then improve their game.
Of the two brothers, Gilad is the more experienced in competitive curling play, having competed in the Junior National Curling Championships three times. Gabe on the other hand is no slouch himself, having played in local competitive men’s leagues.
The two brothers started curling after they saw a calendar depicting the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.
They came across a photo of curling and after asking their parents to explain the game to them decided to attend an open house at the Potomac Curling Club.
Instantly, they were hooked. When asked if they ever thought back then they would be curling on the international stage, they both laughed and said it never crossed their minds.