Alpine skiing-Israel's first winter Paralympian balances sport, religion

YANQING, China, March 13 (Reuters) - Most athletes would never give up the chance to compete at an Olympic event they have spent years preparing for, but such is Sheyne Vaspi's devotion to her faith that the Israeli skier chose religion over sport at the Beijing Winter Paralympics.

When the weather led organisers to move Sunday's slalom race to Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath set aside for rest and worship, Vaspi took the difficult decision to withdraw from an event she had been eagerly looking forward to.

"I was very disappointed. I had spent two seasons for this competition," Vaspi told Reuters in an interview.

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"For a moment, I debated whether to do it or not. But my faith is stronger than anything else. I believe that without my faith, I wouldn't have been here making history. It wouldn't have been right to give it up."

The 20-year-old Vaspi is the first Israeli to feature at the Winter Paralympics, finishing 15th in the giant slalom standing event despite an injury from a fall earlier in the competition.

"I could have done better but I did show my ability," said Vaspi, who lost one of her legs in a car accident as a child. "But what an amazing experience for me and my team. I'm hungry to achieve more now."

Religion is a strong part of Vaspi's identity, who wears a skirt over her ski suit in line with her religious dress code.

Vaspi feared that her attire might be an issue, given strict rules about uniforms at international competitions, but was cleared to compete after initial safety concerns.

"I want to show it's possible to be religious and also compete in sport," she sad. "It should not stop anyone."

Vaspi's first appearance at the Games has created a buzz back home - Friday's race was broadcast live in Israel and her exploits have been front-page news in many of the local newspapers.

"I have been getting a lot of support from the media in Israel. It's quite a big deal there. I've got a lot of love from the people," Vaspi said.

Vaspi picked up skiing at age 15 with the help of the Erez Foundation, which works with military veterans and children with special needs. She took an instant liking to the snow before her coaches realised that they had something special on their hands.

She hopes her story can inspire others in Israel, where winter sports are still a relative novelty due to limited opportunities - the country has one mountain that gets snow for merely a month every year.

"There's a reason why we've had no winter Paralympians from Israel," said Vaspi. "Israel needs to put in more resources to build winter sports."

Vaspi, like all Israeli winter Olympians, trains far way from home, at Winter Park in Colorado. She said the challenge of being away from family for long periods was extremely tough.

"You can't train for more than a couple of weeks here, so you have to leave your life and move abroad. It's not easy and it's not for everyone."

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Reporting by Dhruv Munjal in Yanqing, China; Editing by William Mallard

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