High Marks for Jewish Swimmers


 

“Watermarks” is a life-affirming documentary that celebrates the constancy of courage and grace, from youth to old age.

Its setting is the waltz-loving Austria of the 1920s and ’30s, where the lithe young swimmers of the fabled Hakoah (“the strength”) Vienna sports club are beating their “Aryan” rival clubs year after year.

Freestyler Judith Deutsch alone breaks 12 national records in 1935 and is the toast of the town, until she refuses to compete for Austria at Hitler’s 1936 Olympic Games. As punishment, she is barred from competition for life and all her marks are erased from the official record books.

After the Reich’s takeover of Austria in 1938, the swimmers scatter to Palestine, the United States and England, marry and establish professional careers.

Some 65 years later, Israeli director Yaron Zilberman decided to track down eight of the swimmers, now in their 80s, in their adopted countries.

He persuaded them to return to Vienna for a reunion and one final lap, in custom-fitted swim suits, in the swimming pool of their glory days. One is Annie Lampl of Los Angeles, who didn’t let her blindness keep her away.

The reunion has its bittersweet remembrances, but few moviegoers are ever likely to encounter as feisty, feminine and fun-loving a bunch of octogenarians.

In 1995, the Austrian swimming federation invited Deutsch to travel from Israel to Vienna to have her medals and records restored in an official ceremony.

Deutsch declined, so the Austrian delegation traveled to Israel to do the honors.

“Watermarks” opens April 1 at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills (310) 274-6869, and on April 8 at the Fallbrook 7 theaters (818) 340-8710 in West Hills.

 

Olympic Veterans Return to Compete


Joe Jacobi’s pain as he prepares for the Olympics is more emotional than physical.

The canoeist/kayaker, 34, told JTA by e-mail that as he prepares for the Olympics in Athens, he misses his 3-year-old daughter, Seu Jane — named for the Spanish village that hosted some rowing competitions in the 1992 Summer Games — who is at home with his wife in Tennessee.

The pursuit of an Olympic medal usually conjures up a youthful single-mindedness, but like Jacobi, many of the 15 Jewish athletes competing for the U.S. team at the Athens Games are veteran athletes who competed in previous Olympics.

Jacobi, nicknamed the "paddling papa," won gold at the Olympics in 1992, the same year he was named USA Canoe/Kayak male athlete of the year.

Another veteran, swimmer Lenny Krayzelburg, a triple gold medal winner at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia, will also compete in Athens, where the Games will get underway on Aug. 13.

Krayzelburg, a Jewish immigrant from Odessa — in what is now Ukraine — also has been a Jewish role model of sorts, once telling reporters that, "Being Jewish is part of me, it’s part of my culture."

He got his first American swimming experience, and his first job, at a JCC in Los Angeles shortly after his family arrived here in 1988 from the Soviet Union. After setting world records in the 100-meter and 200-meter backstroke at the 2000 Olympics, he participated in the Maccabiah in Israel.

Nearly 29, an age considered ancient in a sport mostly dominated by teenagers and those in their early 20s, Krayzelburg made headlines in mid-July when he qualified for the American team by finishing the 100-meter backstroke in 54.06 seconds, behind world champion Aaron Perisol.

His teammate, 28-year-old Jason Lezak of Irvine, another Jewish swimmer, won the 100-meter freestyle after setting a new American record of 48.17 seconds in the semifinals.

"Based on what you hear in the general public, you’d think there wasn’t much representation, but the list we have is very impressive," said Jed Margolis, executive director of Maccabi USA/Sports for Israel. In certain sports, he added, Jews "are at the top of the world."

Take, for example, Sada and Emily Jacobson. This dynamic duo of Jewish sisters from Atlanta may be Olympic neophytes, but they will enter the arena with high expectations.

Sada Jacobson, 21, is the top-ranked woman fencer in the world and in the U.S. and has said in press interviews that making the Olympic squad is honor enough.

Her teammates likely are honored to be competing alongside her, though: Not only is she the first American woman and second American fencer to reach the top of the world rankings, she is also a four-time world championship team member and a two-time NCAA saber champion.

Her younger sister, Emily, 17, is just a few lunges behind and the pair’s domination of women’s fencing has been compared to that of tennis’ well-known sisters, Venus and Serena Williams.

Emily, one of two athletes to receive a 2002 Jules D. Major Award to Jewish High School Athletes of the Year, was ranked second in U.S. saber fencing in 2003 and was a 2003 Pan American Games bronze medalist.

The Games in Athens will also be the first for 28-year-old fencer Dan Kellner. This six-time world championship team member from central New Jersey finished second in the foil competition at the national championships in 1997, 1998 and 2000.

But in 2000, Kellner did not make the Olympic squad. After a year hiatus, he came back and won a gold medal at the 2003 Pan American games, and his first national championship in 2004. For Kellner, making the Olympic team reflects the eagerness of a younger generation that is following closely in the footsteps of those before them.

"My friends who have done it before say it’s an experience that will change your life," he said in an interview with the New Jersey Jewish News. "[At the opening ceremonies], I plan to heed their advice and walk slowly — you only get once around the track," he said.

In other sports, though, veteran Jewish athletes will be representing the United States.

In track and field, Deena Drossin Kastor, who competed in Sydney and still runs at home in Central California, qualified in the marathon; equestrian — and West Palm Beach, Fla., horse trainer — Margie Engle, who was a member of the 2000 U.S. Olympic team, and the winner of five major equestrian competitions in 2001, will also compete.

Rami Zur, a newcomer to the American team who rowed in the canoe/kayak competition for Israel in 2000, will compete this year for the United States. His dual citizenship — he was born in Berkeley, and currently lives outside San Diego — allowed him to qualify for both countries’ teams.

In the non-Jewish world, Olympic medals are a pinnacle for sports achievement.

But Maccabi USA’s Margolis good-naturedly called the international competition a stepping stone for the Maccabiah Games, which will take place in July 2005.

"The Olympics are our stepping stone," he said. "You can win gold medals, but being part of the Jewish people is very special also."

Journal Contributing Editor Tom Tugend contributed to this report.

Just a Theory


In a sea of competitors, 17-year-old Ilya Gurevich of Israel is alone in the field of theoretical physics. All the other teenagers competing in the physics division at this year’s Intel International Science and Engineering Fair have entered projects in practical physics, Gurevich said, but he stuck with the theoretical.

"The world’s largest science fair," formerly known as the Westinghouse Competition, is taking place at multiple locations May 9-15, including the Oregon Convention Center in Portland.

Gurevich recently won first prize in the Intel Israel-Bloomfield Science Museum Young Scientists Competition and said he was "very surprised" when he won the award for his research on the behavior and influence of small disruptions in the uniformity of the universe.

"I know it was on a very high level, but it was not practical," said the high school senior, who has been taking courses at Ben-Gurion University, in Beersheva, for two years.

Practical or not, Israeli scientists have chosen Gurevich and Igor Kreimerman of the Israel Arts and Science Academy in Jerusalem, winner of second prize in the Israel competition, to represent Israel in the 2004 Intel competition.

About 1,300 teenagers from 40 countries are competing in 15 categories for a total of $3 million in scholarships, internships, and travel and equipment grants from the Intel Foundation, public and private universities, and about 70 corporate, professional and government sponsors. The 1,200 judges include scientists, engineers and Nobel Prize laureates.

The three winners of the grand prize, the Intel Young Scientist Award, each will receive a $50,000 scholarship and an invitation to attend the Nobel Prize ceremonies in Stockholm, Sweden.

Gurevich said his project, called "Deviations From an Isotropic and Homogeneous Expansion of the Universe," defies simple explanation.

Essentially, he said, the project tries to preserve Einstein’s theories with regard to the expanding universe and its impact on cosmology.

Science is not about reading books, Gurevich said: "At some point you have to start working and thinking yourself."

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