(JNS) In a true “Cinderella story,” 19-year-old Hailey Kops, a religiously observant athlete from West Orange, N.J., is preparing to take on the world’s finest ice skaters while proudly representing Israel at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.
Kops and her partner 33-year-old Evgeni Krasnopolski recently qualified for the pairs ice skating competition at the Olympics, which will be held next February. They defied all odds when they finished in the top three at an Olympics qualifier event in Germany, punching their tickets to China, as they had only been training together as skating partners for three months.
In an interview with JNS, Kops said her journey to the Olympics began at age 3, when she first laced up her skates and would march around the ice as her mother Lisa, a champion figure skater and coach, would be leading skating training sessions.
By the time she was 6-years-old, Kops was already waking up at around 5 a.m. in order to practice skating before school. She would then go to school and return to the rink after her classes to get in more practice. A few years later, her talent started drawing attention.
“Once I started competing, I realized that I had a love for performing along with the competition and adrenaline, and at around 11 or 12-years-old one of my coaches [at the time] told me, ‘I am going to get you to the Olympics.’ And others started saying I had a lot of potential in the sport,” Kops said.
At age 13, Israel’s Ice Skating Federation invited her to try out for team Israel. The federation happens to hold its year-round training near her New Jersey home, as Israel has limited ice skating facilities.
Out of convenience and her love for Israel, Kops tried out, made the team and shortly thereafter obtained her Israeli citizenship.
“It had always been a dream of mine to skate for Israel. As a Jewish religious girl raised modern Orthodox, I know that Israel is our home. It was always part of my plan to try to skate for Israel,” she said.
Skating became such an integral part of her life that Kops was home-schooled throughout high school in order to focus on her passion.
But in 2019, after having achieved success on an international level, Kops — who had suffered several knee injuries and missed out on experiences as a teenager — decided to walk away from the sport as her heart wasn’t completely in it.
“I didn’t go to high school, and didn’t have a normal teenage life, so I decided to hang my skates up. It wasn’t fair to my team if I wasn’t ‘all in’ anymore,” she said.
Yet after attending a religious seminary in Israel in 2020-2021 for her post high-school gap year this past June, on her first day home Kops got a call from the head of the Israeli Ice Skating Federation Boris Chait, who said Krasnopolski was in desperate need of a partner in order to attempt to qualify for this third Olympics.
Kops agreed to dust off her skates after two years off the ice and come out of retirement, and despite the extremely short window, the pair managed to qualify, finishing ahead of some of the top skaters in the world, including from powerhouses China and Belarus.
“[Kops and Krasnopolski] made history by qualifying for the Olympics after only training together for three months,” Chait told JNS. “Usually, pairs have to be together for years and years. They made it by beating out very capable teams.”
Kops said regarding her partner, “I have so much respect for him and he is a super talented skater. The fact that I have the opportunity to skate with a three-time Olympian is amazing in itself.”
She added, “We were friends before, so we had this base of friendship when we started skating together. I think it’s super important in a partnership when there is mutual respect, it makes it so much easier. And he has helped me so much to prepare since he has so much experience and has been through this before.”
This past week, the pair were in Israel for the country’s top skating competition before heading back to the U.S. to continue training. In January, they will compete in the European Championships before final preparations for the Olympics.
Another challenge Kops faced throughout her journey is the fact that she is Sabbath observant. As a result, she would walk to the rinks if a competition was on a Friday night and her family would contact local Chabad emissaries to assist with lodging, food or other religious needs.
Kops said that she was forced to balance being in the Orthodox Jewish world and the competitive skating world at the same time. However, while she said that at first this was a very difficult challenge, over the years she has learned to adjust.
She explained, “It’s nice for me to feel that I can still be religious and compete. In the past it was very difficult, but now it’s normal for me to keep Shabbat, keeping kosher, and it’s something I really want to hold on to.”
In terms of her expectations at the Olympics, Kops said that a podium finish would be very difficult for a new team, but she will be out there giving it her all.
“My personal goal is to skate clean, get to the finals and try to get a medal,” she said. “Every time I get on the ice whether at a small or big competition, I try to do the best that I can.”
Chait added, “Only 19 pairs from the whole world made it to the Olympics. Making it to the Olympics is already considered a ‘win’ and an achievement of a lifetime.”
Kops’s mother Lisa along with her father Steven are her biggest fans. They have traveled with her to competitions around the world and were in Germany when the pair qualified for the Olympics.
“I think that every parent wants their children to chase their passion and dreams no matter how big, challenging and potentially unattainable those dreams can actually be,” Steven told JNS, noting that Hailey representing Israel “has been the greatest honor for us as a family.”
He added, “Two of my three siblings live in Israel and we have a lot of extended family in Israel as well. I don’t think there will be a dry eye in the room when Hailey and her fellow Israeli athletes walk out during the opening ceremony carrying the Israeli flag and wearing the Israeli flag on their jackets.”