Heredity is an interesting thing. It can mean a lifetime of fair skin or curly hair, trouble gaining weight or frustration trying to lose it. For some it begets dark battles with depression or substance abuse.
For Leah Goldstein’s family, it seems to be determination that lies tightly coiled in their genes — a type of grit few of us are acquainted with.
Whether it’s nature or nurture, Leah, a former world kickboxing champion and professional cyclist, is using her gifts to inspire others. She’ll be riding in the Venus de Miles allwomen’s cycling event in Longmont on Aug. 29, raising money to help lowincome college students through Greenhouse Scholars. She’ll also be signing copies of her new memoir No Limits at Prospect Park from Aug. 28 to 30.
But back to the genetics.
Leah’s mother, Ahoova, grew up in Kulja, China (now Yining), where her family had relocated from Russia in the 1920s. Ahoova’s family lost everything in the 1950s — three houses, hundreds of dairy cows and a wheel manufacturing business — when Communism reached their village. The family escaped China and relocated to Israel, where Ahoova was a star member of the track team. She would participate in five or six events, and once won an event with a broken leg.
“I’m trying to get her to write a book about her life,” Leah says with a laugh. She laughs a lot as she weaves forward and back through time, knitting together the story of her life — a story so wild, so full of adventure and misadventure, it’s a little hard to believe.
Goldstein’s father, Sam, was raised mostly in Poland by Holocaust survivors. But when his parents couldn’t shake the trauma of the war, they sought a fresh start in Israel. Sam was once detained in Israel’s toughest military prison for sneaking out to visit Ahoova, with whom he’d fallen in love after watching her leap from a 30-foot diving board.
Sam convinced Ahoova to move to Vancouver after they were married — they already had one daughter, Iris, and Ahoova was pregnant with Leah. Two non-English speaking immigrants, Sam and Ahoova worked hard for everything.
As for Leah, she too has shown the world time and again what it means to persevere. As a child she was teased for her poor English and lisp. She was told she had a severe learning disorder and was placed in special classes. Her right leg was about an inch shorter than her left leg, and far weaker.
Needless to say, Leah was an easy target for playground bullies.
At six years old she saw her first Bruce Lee movie and she was transfixed by the small man capable of dishing out large portions of kung fu retribution. She begged her parents for tae kwon do lessons, but they wouldn’t relent until her ninth birthday, mainly because of her weak right leg. When she did start lessons, she moved up quickly, obtaining her red belt in two years. She beat two boys — both black belts —at her first North American Championship competition.
Her skill in tae kwon do was undeniable, but when she competed against other women she was “too aggressive.” One day someone at the tae kwon do studio suggested Leah try kickboxing. Whether he was serious or just pointing out that Leah’s style was too combative, she found herself a kickboxing studio within days.
By 1987, when Leah was just 17 years old, she became World Bantamweight Kickboxing Champion.
She was offered roles in kung fu movies, but the cheesy plots nauseated Leah, and besides, she already had a plan for what she wanted to do next — join the Israeli army.
Growing up, Leah spent summers in Israel with aunts, uncles and cousins. There, military service is compulsory for all citizens, three years for men and two for women. Leah remembers listening to her family tell stories of their time in service, and she always knew she wanted to experience it for herself. Specifically, she wanted to work in the Israeli secret service — the Mossad.
High school diploma in hand, Leah moved to Israel where she again excelled at everything she put her mind to — except the Mossad. She made contact with a family friend whom she suspected to be a member of the covert group. But the first rule of Fight Club is don’t talk about Fight Club. The meeting was the nail in the coffin for her hopes. She was never contacted to join.
“That was almost one of the biggest defeats for me,” Leah says. “That felt like rock bottom because that was a career move, but there were other opportunities that were open. I had to pick myself off, dust myself off and move forward.”
And as always, she did. She went on to work undercover in Narcotics as well as Security and Intelligence services in Israel, eventually becoming an instructor to high officials and field workers in the main police headquarters in Haifa. Her work in security and intelligence was mentally grueling, even for someone as focused as Leah. She bore witness to violence of many varieties, and it began to weigh on her.
During her time in the military, Leah had begun cycling, becoming the Israeli duathalon champion and even helping develop the nation’s first cycling team. It was cycling that helped Leah cope with many of the psychological challenges she was facing in her work. After nine years of military service, she decided it was time to move on to the next phase of her life.
She moved back to Vancouver and within two years joined the Canadian National Cycling Team. In 2004, after a series of appearances across Europe and North America, she was offered a scholarship to compete for Israel in the Athens Olympics, but a bike crash in Pennsylvania’s Tour de Toona broke Leah’s right hand and ended her cycling season.
Leah’s professional cycling career was marked with extremes. Leah was lucky to live after a major crash in the 2005 Cascade Classic in Oregon — but in 2006 she had her best season ever, winning 12 races and breaking two records for hill climbs.
She weathered a crash in 2008, and was struck by a car in 2010. Through it all she continued to train, sometimes with casts on both arms.
She finally laid down her professional mantle three years ago after first winning the 2011 Race Across America — considered one of the world’s toughest races, covering 3,000 miles and more than 170,000 feet of elevation — and then Race Across the West in 2012.
But she says she knew a few years ago, at the top of her game, that something within her was changing.
“Especially on the Race Across America, you have a lot of time — you’re on your bike for 3,000 miles and that’s a lot of time for reflection,” Leah says. “And you have to call it: How many times have I almost gotten killed on the bike? The pressure of thinking, ‘If I quit this I’ll be a nobody.’ That’s the reflection I was having on the Race Across America, that now it’s OK. You’ll be fine. You gotta be normal now instead of killing yourself.”
While she had won the Race Across America, she says she was berating herself for not breaking the record time. Long story short, cycling wasn’t fun anymore.
But she went back in for the win one more time, signing up for Race Across the West, which she won. But the experience was grueling.
“I thought, ‘Are you going to do this until you’re 80? You’re going to miss out on other things in life.’ It can’t always be about you in life. That’s when I put the brakes on and said, ‘It’s time to do something else.’”
Today, at 46 years old, Leah Goldstein has been a world kickboxing champion, a member of the Israeli military and Israel’s undercover police unit, and a celebrated professional cyclist. She qualified for the 2004 Athens Olympics and has been offered roles in Asian kung fu movies.
“Many people have theories on where my drive has come from,” Leah writes in her recently released memoir, No Limits. “Did my parents expect greatness from me? Is my intense need to win in my DNA, inherited from my grandparents’ survival skills? After all, my family tree has weaved its way through and survived concentration camps, communism, escapes, immigration, and a partridge in a pear tree. You name it; some close blood relative has probably faced it and somehow managed to thrive. Do I have some magical “winning gene,” or have my parents pushed me to strive for seemingly impossible goals? It’s so much more complicated than that.”
But after decades of pushing her body and mind to the limits, she’s entered a new phase of her life as a speaker and a memoirist. That’s not to say that her competitive fire has burned out — quite the contrary. Goldstein still competes in her age category in races across the nation — cycling, half and full marathons, and duathlons.
Still, she says the high she gets from motivating people is greater than any she got from standing on a podium.
“When I quit cycling and people started to hear my story, I started to be asked to speak, and the reaction that I got from other people… people coming up to me even two or three weeks later and saying, ‘You gave me hope. You inspired me.’ It was so satisfying, even helping one person, even if it’s out of 100. That high I got was almost better than anything I’ve ever done.”
One of Leah’s regular speaking gigs is with a Canadian program for high-risk youth called Community Future. Once every nine weeks she goes and speaks with kids as they prepare for the professional world. And success, she says, isn’t the most important thing she talks about.
“It’s all those struggles, those life failures that you’re going to face, and if you think you’re not going to then you’re kidding yourself, because life is tough. But when you get through those barriers, the sacrifice is worth it,” she says.
“When you share success you’re only sharing the end of it. What about the struggle to get there? And that’s what those kids need to hear: ‘Hey, you know what? You know how many times you fell down, but you got back up,’ and that’s what they need to hear to motivate them.”