Sara Kovaliov sat inside the Abu Dhabi airport waiting for a flight to Amman, Jordan, en route home to Israel. When a security guard beckoned, she rushed over, thinking there was a problem with her luggage. Led into a separate room, she was met by the head of security services, who presented her with a luxury watch, a gift from a local sheikh. Apparently, she’d made quite an impression.
Less than four years after Kovaliov started training in jiu jitsu, the 16-year-old won a silver medal at the Under 18 World Championship this past February. But that’s not what had impressed the sheikh. He was “shocked that there was a deaf competitor,” Kovaliov says, enlisting the help of her translator, Tami Shemma.
Even with two deaf parents and two deaf brothers, Kovaliov describes her home as “normal.” The only difference? They speak sign language.
When she was 12, Kovaliov was looking for an after-school activity. Kids had been teasing her because of her disability, and her mother suggested self-defense classes. After watching her younger brother take jiu jitsu lessons, Kovaliov decided to try it — and was instantly hooked.
Kovaliov signed up for classes and started training with Amir Boaron, owner of MMA Israel. When she arrived at his gym in Netanya, she had to learn, he says, that jiu jitsu is more than just “a kick and a punch.” Boaron calls it the chess of martial arts. And the fact that Kovaliov can’t hear? He believes it makes her more focused and able to give “200 percent” on the grappling mat.
To this day, her trainer has not learned sign language. They tried text messages, but eventually developed their own communication system based on signals and gestures. “We have a ton of misunderstandings,” Kovaliov says, smiling, “but at the end of the day he understands me.”
When you meet Kovaliov, it’s tough to picture the petite blonde as a fierce competitor who has defeated much bigger girls. Then you start to notice the bruises on her thighs and arms, battle wounds from this opponent or that practice.
Asked if Kovaliov’s disability puts her in harm’s way, her mother doesn’t seem too concerned, insisting that she faces no greater danger than other competitors.
Alon Cohen, a trainer for Israel’s national jiu jitsu team, watched Kovaliov recently. He was blown away by her connection with Boaron and describes her as a competitor mature beyond her years. “She’s still young, but she’s really tough,” he says. He adds that she’s with the right coach, in the right place, and “has everything she needs to grow into a global competitor.”
For the pint-size fighter, jiu jitsu has become an obsession. Kovaliov wakes up at 6 a.m. during the week for the hourlong drive to school. By 4 p.m. she’s at Boaron’s gym, training six days a week. Last year, between training, competitions and travel, she missed two months of classes, but she’s careful not to fall behind. Saturday — her only day off — is devoted to family, and she doesn’t seem bothered that her schedule doesn’t allow for a social life. “I train, and it provides me the satisfaction and fun I need,” she says.
It took 18 months of training before Kovaliov felt ready for her first competition, in December 2015. Disappointed by her performance, she ramped up her training before her first international competition, the Under 18 World Championship in Greece in March 2017. It was overwhelming. She was still learning the protocols, and the size of the crowd made her nervous. But when she stepped onto the mat, everything melted away. Among the seven competitors in the under-48-kilogram weight class, Kovaliov made it to the final fight before finishing second. That fall, she won the gold medal at the Under 18 European Championship in Romania. She was ecstatic — except that standing on the podium without being able to hear Israel’s national anthem, she says, “broke my heart.”
But what are the risks that she will break something else? Asked if Kovaliov’s disability puts her in harm’s way, her mother doesn’t seem too concerned, insisting that she faces no greater danger than other competitors. If her daughter gets injured, she will signal to pause the fight. Apparently, it’s up to her to determine when enough is enough.
At this year’s Under 18 World Championship in Abu Dhabi, Kovaliov’s opponent put her in a lock and Boaron started yelling, “She’s going to break her arm!” Shemma tried to relay the message, but Kovaliov wasn’t looking at them — perhaps because she didn’t want to stop the fight — and eventually she freed herself from the hold.
Turns out Abu Dhabi was the first time Kovaliov had brought a translator to the competition. Until then, she’d relied entirely on Boaron, who could only send coaching signals if and when their eyes met. And translator Shemma almost didn’t make the tournament.
Kovaliov’s family pays all of her expenses out of pocket, but they couldn’t afford the $2,800 to bring Shemma to Abu Dhabi. When Boaron’s gym couldn’t foot the bill either, Shemma decided to raise the money — which she did with a donation from Hapoalim Bank in Israel. Projecting ahead, the family estimates it could cost $10,000 to cover Shemma’s travel and lodging for a full year. Shemma is spearheading a search for sponsors while also asking for support from Israel’s Ministry of Culture and Sport.
“The system needs to give [Kovaliov] access,” Shemma says. “If we’re talking about someone who is confined to a wheelchair, then of course they bring a ramp. That’s very clear. But because being deaf is a disability that you can’t see, they start saying, ‘It’s OK, she’ll figure it out, she’ll read lips.’”
Team Kovaliov hopes to have sponsors lined up in time for the next European Championship, in Rome this fall. But Israel’s jiu jitsu star has already set her sights on Paris in 2024, when jiu jitsu will make its Olympic debut.
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