With a laugh, Vlad Bykanov admits he wasn't a kid who could sit still for more than five minutes. And when you watch a video of him racing round an ice rink, fast enough to make your head spin, you understand why. Because this is a man with a real passion for skating – a passion so great that by the age of 16 he was already competing on the world scene and in his mid-20s representing Israel at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. But he's not stopping there. He's already hard at work working on his next goal: To compete and medal in the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea. Vlad Bykanov has set his sights on the 2018 Winter Olympics. How did this journey all begin?
“I was born in the Ukraine but moved to Israel when I was very young," Bykanov says. "When I was 8, a skating center opened in Metula, a small town in northern Israel, near where I lived. After about an hour on the ice I was hooked. It felt so natural, I always tell people that it must be in the genes – well, let's face it, we Russians are always going to prefer cold over heat, no?”
Bykanov was soon a regular on the rink and, by his own admission, fell in love with the sport. By his mid-teens he was competing against other teenagers worldwide, but it was in Sochi where he made a name for himself.
“The Olympics motivated me to push myself to a level I didn't believe was possible," he said. “The previous season, believe it or not, I actually had thought about quitting. But having a goal like this made all the difference. It was very tough – I had to qualify in the top 32 to make it there, and I was competing against 80 others.”
Fiercely determined, Bykanov made it, and was one of five athletes representing Israel in Sochi, actually carrying the flag in the opening ceremony.
“Speed skating is a very extreme sport,” he explained. "There's so much to factor in – you've got to be fast, agile, negotiate corners, and think constantly about your place in relation to your competitors.” Bykanov competes in 500-, 1000- and 1500-meter races which, as he says, can feel more like running than skating.
His greatest achievement so far came earlier this year, when he won the gold medal at the European Short Track Speed Skating Championship.
“It's a young sport but very addictive," said Bykanov. Kids like the speed and extremity of it. In speed skating, you also have to take risks, and push yourself both physically and mentally. It takes up a lot of energy – which means you have to be at the top of your game, fitness-wise.”
Speed skating is, indeed, a risky affair. Competitors have to don specially made tight suits, helmets and shin and knee pads, and even then, it's easy enough to take a tumble on the ice. Last year, Bykanov needed stitches after one bad fall. Still, he said, he knows the risks, not to mention the sacrifices he needs to make to be a professional athlete.
Since 2010, Bykanov has been training with the Dutch team in the Netherlands. “My coach is very strict,” he says. “No parties, no drinking ... on time in the morning. He expects us to be serious about the sport."
Did Bykanov ever consider an alternative career? “I can't imagine doing anything else but this," he said. "Right now, I've set my sights on the Winter Olympics in Korea."
And long-term, where does he see himself?
“I miss Israel very much,” he says. “It's a great country and my hope is to return home, so I can start promoting speed skating. I want to get thousands of young kids as enthusiastic about it as I am. And if I win a medal in Asia, it will that bit easier..."