Episode
#98
HEB

The power of inner choice and perseverance: the story of a wounded IDF veteran who doesn't let anything stop him from fulfilling all his dreams

Choice
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Choice
Values
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Values
Strengths
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Strengths
Vision & Mission
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Vision & Mission
Acceptance
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Acceptance
Resilience
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Resilience
Growth Mindset
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Growth Mindset
Cope with Failure
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Cope with Failure
Psychology & Mental Health
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Psychology & Mental Health
Sports
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Sports
Featuring
Elay Chayot
Paralympic Athlete and Lecturer

In this significant week, of remembrance and independence, the most Israeli week in the year, I want to share with you an episode with Elay Chayot, a dear friend, one of the people who most represents Israeliness for me.

Elay knew from the age of 5 that he wanted to be an athlete -

"I would wake up at night for NBA games and draw the teams, write down who won and show the family."

He started with swimming and basketball, and at the age of 14 he fell in love with running. He shares about the tremendous motivation he had, which got him up early in the morning and sent him to run 14 km in the hills with the dream of becoming an Israeli champion and an Olympic athlete -

"I wanted to reach the highest possible levels and maximize my achievement potential. I realized that I may not be the most talented in the world, but I will work the hardest of all and that's how I will win."

Through sports, he trained the capacity for hard work and perseverance. Eventually, this muscle helped him take the Israeli championship in mountain running for four years in a row, and the Israeli championship in the 5 km run.

Athlete or fighter

When it was time to enlist, Elay faced a significant crossroads - whether to continue as an outstanding athlete, or become a fighter. Although he received approval that would have allowed him to continue as an athlete, Elay shares that for him it was not really a dilemma. As someone who grew up in a family that was raised on the values of the army, with a 63-year-old father who is still a volunteer for the reserves from whom Elay eagerly gleaned stories from the service, and brothers who did significant combat service, he knew inside that he wanted to follow their path and become a fighter -

"For me, there was no other option."

He joins the Israeli Navy elite commando , but after almost a year he drops out of the course, which Elay describes as a strong slap -

"the first time I've been told - 'No, you don't fit'".

Looking back, he shares that in the advanced professional stages, he lacked the intensity of the first stage. This was less suited to his character.

Even in the world of entrepreneurship, I (Gali) like to use the word 'Fit’ - it's not that you or I are wrong, or that someone is not good enough, sometimes it's just not a correct and exact match.

After the drop out, Elay came to his senses and decided to move forward -

"I realized that I have finished this chapter in my life and I am beginning a new one.". It was important for me to be focused and I told myself that I enlisted to be a fighter and a commander and to make an impact, so what can I do to accomplish that."

Life turns upside down in an instant

He recalculated a route and joined a cohesive team in the "MAGLAN" unit. Two weeks after that a life-changing event struck him. At the end of a camouflage training week in the field, the commanders gather the soldiers together and tell them about a long-standing tradition of the unit:

"Jump from the Hummer Jeep into a huge pile of thorny bushes that we gathered together. At that second I stop and think to myself that this seems ridiculous to me. I don't see how it will advance me as a fighter, I don't understand the goal, but no one dares to refuse what the commanders say, especially me as a new soldier in the team."

In the army, the line between the obligation to follow an order versus where I am and what’s right for me, is usually strict. You follow the order, believing from the inside that this is the right thing to do. Sometimes, we can find ourselves in very difficult situations where we go over our own boundaries and values. We can also feel powerless in the face of what is expected of us. The unpleasant sensations we have in our bodies in such moments of confusion are the warning lights that the body signals us through, even when we don't fully understand why - many times this is the only distinguishing sign we have.

Elay felt these signals, but he also didn't think he had any other options but to obey and jump. He decided to wait and see what happens. When it's time for him to jump, eighth in line, the pile of bushes has already been squashed to the ground.

"Immediately after jumping I don't feel anything. I try to move my arms and legs and there is no reaction, communication, you sense that nothing is part of your body anymore. I look up at the sky and feel disconnected from my body. In those seconds I understand that now the war begins, and if I fall asleep now, I may not wake up."

When I ask him what it's like to return to that defining and painful moment for him again and again when he tells his personal story in lectures, Elay simply answers that

“four and a half years after the event, it's already part of who he is, the event has already happened and you need to manage it and move forward."

And really from the first second of understanding he talks to the commanders, explains to them the severity of the injury with controlled clarity, assures them that he will take care of them and holds out for two and a half hours of procrastination and a fall from a stretcher that only worsened the injury, while he fights for his consciousness. He finally arrives at a hospital, and only there allows himself to close his eyes and rest. Amidst all this chaos, still, Elay’s “center” remains very focused, and he shares -

"As soon as I wake up and I see my family arriving, it's strange, but I tell them I'm going to be in the Paralympics."

The same night he was sent in for neck fixation surgery that got complicated. The doctors called his family to say goodbye, thinking these might be his last hours of life. For two weeks he is sedated and ventilated, and finally wakes up in intensive care completely paralyzed from the neck down.

Start again from scratch

After a month lying in bed unable to move, he is transferred to a wheelchair. It is precisely there that an emotional understanding of his situation seeps in. But again at this point, the same Elay who learned the power of perseverance and dedication to work, embedded within himself the anchor and mental tools to rehabilitate himself - physically and mentally.

Even today, after all his impressive and inspiring achievements, Elay says:

"I feel that I am not a special person. I just like to work hard and believe that there is nothing you cannot achieve if you want, believe in it and work hard for it."

He was used to his strength being in the physical medium before the injury, but now he has to start from scratch as he undergoes rehabilitation. He was told that he would always remain paralyzed from the neck down. However, he decided to take rehabilitation to the limit and not give up on the dream of moving his body again -

"I told myself that I was going to walk on my feet, no matter what and how it would be. It's like teaching a baby to walk. Every hour you fall and get up and every day you have crises. You have to teach the body that doesn't understand what you want from it, it's literally reprogramming it."

Along with that, two months into rehabilitation, he decides to develop and advance in other areas and not let a wheelchair manage him. He fulfills another dream when he enrolls in degree studies in education and sports.

The road was not easy there either. As a student at university, he first encountered learning challenges stemming from the injury, such as the fact that he could not write anything in classes and had to rely only on listening as a source of learning, while managing a lifestyle in which he could not eat, drink and shower alone, and lived in a hospital.

When I ask him if he has had moments of self-pity, Elay honestly shares that there have been many -

"Every new day is to get up with the disability and make a new choice. To understand that this is what it is and I have goals and dreams to fulfill."

His very choice does not mean that there is not also pain, difficulty, a sense of injustice and deep frustration, but shows the inner strength to contain all these complex feelings, and still continue.

A year after that, Elay won the Israeli championship in swimming 100 meters. Since then he has already fallen in love with tennis and flies to competitions all over the world. He tells his personal story on stage to 500-1,000 people every week. Now he is also nearing the completion of a master's degree in Sports Psychology at Reichman University. Also, he continues to develop as a tennis player and plans on participating in the Los Angeles Paralympics in 2028.

Today, he acts in accordance with this belief:

"Live the moment, dream big, and don't give up.". I'm not afraid to dream and aim as high as possible and there's nothing that will stop me. The more I'm told 'You can't', I just want more."

Elay’s story is so relevant to the entrepreneurial journey and the milestones in it - to understand that there is no substitute for hard work, the importance of humility along the way, that it is permissible to be hurt and upset, and at the same time to keep moving forward and forward all the time, and how much our inner choice not to give up on ourselves is a significant anchor in our ability to succeed.

I hope that Elay’s story and strength will give you strength like he gave me. 

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