Ski-U-Mah Life is a weekly feature from GopherSports.com that highlights some of the more than 700 Minnesota student-athletes outside of their athletic accomplishments. This week, freshman breaststroke specialist Eitan Yudashkin of the men's swimming and diving team is in the spotlight.
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Eitan Yudashkin knew he wanted to compete in Division I swimming. He just had to wait longer than the typical high school athlete for that dream to become reality.
Instead of enrolling in college classes at age 18, Yudashkin was conscripted into the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) to begin his three years of mandatory military service.
Yudashkin stopped swimming for a month at the start of his service. Like his fellow conscripts, he reported for basic training. Much of the similarity between Yudashkin and his fellow citizens’ required service ended there.
Although Israel relies on mandatory conscription for its military, there are exemptions, and there are also special considerations for certain groups who do serve. In addition to making the IDF’s physical training easier, Yudashkin’s achievements as an Israeli national team swimmer earned him special status as an elite athlete.
“If I didn’t get the chance to be an elite athlete, I wouldn’t be here now,” he said. “I would’ve had to stop my swimming career at the age of 18, not swim for three years and basically end my whole swimming career.”
Elite athlete status meant that after the first month of service, Yudashkin would have a military schedule that allowed him plenty of time to continue training in the pool and keep his goal of Division I swimming within reach. After basic training he transferred to an air force base near his home in Kiryat Motzkin where it was convenient to go back and forth between work and workouts.
Yudashkin’s military duties varied from day to day depending on what his commander needed. He often helped mechanic training run smoothly when new personnel came to the base to learn about the different helicopters and planes there.
Most people would be at the base all day, but Yudashkin started his morning with swimming practice and left the base again after a partial day to return for another session in the water. Club teammate Ido Haber served at the same time and kept a similar schedule, but they were the only elite swimmers on the base. Although Yudashkin’s fellow servicemen had to work longer hours on site, they respected the work he did in the pool to earn the status he had.
“The people in the base were very friendly,” he said. “They would always ask about my competitions. They were interested. My commander and I still stay in touch and he asks how it’s going.”
Due to his seniority, Yudashkin had four soldiers under him toward the end of his service to teach them the things he was doing. He was a staff sergeant when he demobilized earlier in 2017.
“That service for sure made me more mature,” he said. “I think it gave me a different perspective of leadership and loyalty and the basic values that you learn while you’re in the military. It stays with you.”
He was able to continue training through those three years in preparation for college, but something Yudashkin had to get used to again was studying. He spent a few months preparing for the SAT and the TOEFL exam. The multi-lingual Yudashkin speaks Russian with his family and Hebrew elsewhere in Israel. Although he took English in high school, supplemented by the books and TV shows he watched on his own to improve his fluency, studying all in English was a new experience for him.
Yudashkin’s deferred start to school and college swimming finally came this fall. Gophers head coach Kelly Kremer recently coached Austrian Jakub Maly, another athlete who served in the military before arriving at the U of M. Kremer sees extra discipline, maturity and gratitude in these students when they get to campus.
“Eitan is one of the most appreciative students,” Kremer said. “In everything he does, you can tell he feels like he’s very fortunate to have the opportunity to be here. It shows in how he conducts himself. At competitions and in practice he’s so supportive of his teammates. He’s a very team-oriented person. If he has a spare second at a meet, even if he’s behind the blocks waiting for his own race, he’s cheering for his teammates.”
Now in the middle of his first semester at an American university, writing in English is coming more easily to Yudashkin. Being away from home and his family is still difficult, although he had a chance to reunite with Haber, now a Wisconsin swimmer, and fellow Israeli Tomer Zamir of Penn State at a recent meet.
Yudashkin speaks daily with his 8-year-old sister, Alexandra, but those conversations and their weekly Skype calls can’t quite replace in-person contact. He hopes Alexandra and their parents, Ilonna and Slava, will visit him in the U.S. sometime during college, perhaps if he competes in a Big Ten or national championship-level meet.
What makes the current separation worth it?
“Everything,” Yudashkin said. “I was waiting for it for a long time. I knew from Day 1 of my military service that I wanted to swim at a D-I school. The wait for this was really long, and when I came here, even though the separation was really hard, everything that I’ve been doing here is a pleasure. The hard workouts are really hard, but I enjoy every second. The competitions with such a big team—I haven’t had a big team like that. It’s a completely different experience. The education—I’ve been out of school for three years, but still I enjoy it. I enjoy what I’m doing—everything. Even though the beginning was hard, I still enjoy every second.”
Justine Buerkle is an assistant director of athletic communications at the University of Minnesota, and a contributing writer to GopherSports.com and Ski-U-Mah Magazine.
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