Katie Ledecky, Olympic gold medalist swimmer, lost family members in the Holocaust

It isn’t up for debate — Katie Ledecky is currently the best female swimmer on the planet. The 19-year-old from Bethesda, Maryland, who won a gold medal in the 2012 London Olympics at age 15, has never lost a final of a major international race. Now she has a good chance of taking home 5 medals from the Rio Olympics, and she might break some world records along the way (she has already broken multiple ones during her short career).

How is someone under the age of 20 poised to enter the discussion of best-ever female swimmers?

Part of Ledecky’s inspiration, as revealed in a Sports Illustrated profile in June, comes from the story of her Jewish grandmother, Berta, 83. Berta, who is Czech, is the mother of Ledecky’s father.

Berta and her non-Jewish husband Jaromir (who went by Jerry), met in the United States in 1956, about eight years after Jerry had immigrated from Prague with only five dollars in his pocket. Berta — whom writer S.L. Price describes as a “formidable” woman — once spent a year working as a translator for Albert Einstein at the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn.

When Katie was 10, Berta took her to a Jewish cemetery in Prague and showed her graves of her family members who died during the Holocaust. Price doesn’t mention the exact number Berta’s family lost during World War II, or provide details of Berta’s experiences during the Holocaust, but the memory clearly stuck with Katie. Although Ledecky is Catholic and famously recites the Hail Mary before her races, Price writes that the “fuel” that drives Ledecky includes the visit to “a Jewish cemetery in Prague.”

So who knows — when Ledecky goes for gold this week she might just have her Jewish grandmother on her mind.

Olympian gold medalist leads U.S. delegation at Maccabiah opening

When swimmer Garrett Weber-Gale heard his name announced Wednesday afternoon as the U.S. flag bearer for the opening ceremony of the 19th Maccabiah Games, he just about lost his breath.

A two-time gold medalist at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Weber-Gale had spoken with JTA earlier this week about the powerful feelings he experienced during his first few days in Israel. His emotional high continued during a pep rally at the Maccabi movement’s headquarters in Ramat Gan.

More than 1,100 athletes and coaches cheered the announcement of those chosen to bear the American banner and lead the team Thursday night into Jerusalem’s Teddy Kollek Stadium. Weber-Gale confessed to hoping he would be selected. He was not.

Then Jeffrey Bukantz, Maccabi USA’s general chairman, called Weber-Gale’s name as the flag bearer and the room erupted in applause.

“My heart was just pumping like crazy. I was so excited,” Weber-Gale said. “I was a little embarrassed walking up there with everyone watching me.”

The selection ranks right up with his Olympics experiences, said Weber-Gale, who lives in Austin, Tex., but was raised in Milwaukee.

“To represent the U.S.A., and the Jewish people in general, I can’t tell you how much this makes my blood pump.”

Jewish glory, frustration mark London Games

The London Olympics may have “lit up the world,” as organizing committee head Sebastian Coe put it, but for Jews the 2 1/2 weeks offered healthy doses of frustration and glory.

On the plus side, new medalists such as America’s Aly Raisman gained the spotlight with her grace, which included a floor routine to “Hava Nagila” en route to a U.S. women’s team gold in gymnastics. She followed that with an individual gold for floor exercise and a bronze on the balance beam.

Meanwhile, New Zealand’s Jo Aleh brought home a gold for Kiwi fans in the women’s 470 regatta and Australian kayaker Jessica Fox won a silver medal in the slalom K1. They joined in their glory with previous medalists such as U.S. swimmer Jason Lezak, who helped his relay team win a silver in the 4×100-meter freestyle in what was likely the last of his four Olympics.

Yet the game’s opening ceremony ended hopes that the International Olympic Committee would officially recognize with a moment of silence the 11 Israeli athletes murdered 40 years ago at the Munich Games by Palestinian terrorists. An international campaign for a moment of silence had the support of President Obama and numerous other world leaders.

And Israel’s athletes—for the first time in 24 years—went home without a single medal, which has prompted conversation about the country’s lack of commitment to Olympics excellence. Israel’s rhythmic gymnastics team made it to the finals, but on Sunday it finished last among the eight teams in the all-around group competition.

Two Israeli citizens, however, are coming home with some Olympic glory. David Blatt, an American-Israeli, coached Russia’s bronze-winning men’s basketball team and Aleh will soon make a family visit to the Jewish state.

Blatt, the coach of Israel’s Maccabi Tel Aviv team, has helped rebuild the Russian national squad since being brought in as head coach in 2006, Sports Illustrated reported. He took the team to a 2007 European Championship.

He played for Princeton University from 1977 to 1981 and on the gold medal-winning U.S. team in the 1981 Maccabiah Games. Following the Maccabiah Games, Blatt played for several Israeli teams until he was injured in 1993 and took up coaching.

The disappointment in Israel over the lack of a national delegation medal may be behind what Yuli Edelstein, minister of Diaspora affairs, told Raisman last week as she accepted his invitation for the Raisman family to be his guests in Israel.

“Making your first visit to Israel is not only important because it is the homeland of the Jewish people, but also because you can contribute from your experience to the young generation of Israeli athletes,” Edelstein said, according to The Jerusalem Post.

Beating her to the Jewish state, however, will be Aleh. After a parade back home to celebrate New Zealand’s success at the London Games, she reportedly is heading to Israel for the bat mitzvah of her half-sister.

The greatest disappointment of the Games for many Jews, however, was the failure of the international campaign to have the Munich 11 remembered. It included a petition launched by the Rockland JCC in suburban New York that garnered nearly 111,000 names, a private meeting with two Munich 11 widows and IOC President Jacques Rogge, and the backing of President Obama and political leaders from Australia, Canada, Germany, Italy and elsewhere.

One widow of the Munich 11 had biting words for Rogge when he attended the London Jewish community’s memorial for the murdered athletes and coaches.

“Shame on you, IOC,” said Ankie Spitzer, widow of fencing coach Andre Spitzer, who died in the attack. “You have forsaken the 11 members of your Olympic family. You discriminate against them only because they are Israelis and Jews.”

Meanwhile, the Arab-Israeli conflict was felt when the Lebanese judo team refused to even practice in a gymnasium next to the Israelis. The Lebanese even erected a makeshift barrier to split their gym into two halves, according to the Times of Israel.

Also, Iranian judoka Javad Mahjoob withdrew from the Games, citing “critical digestive system infection,” according to the Washington Post. The report speculated that Iran was maintaining a longstanding policy of not allowing its athletes to compete against Israelis.

Making His Mark

On the afternoon of Monday, Sept. 4, American swimmer Mark Spitz won his seventh gold medal at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, and set his seventh consecutive world record. It was a feat unprecedented in Olympic history, and the handsome 22-year-old Californian became an instant international media celebrity, nowhere more so than in the Jewish press.

A formal news conference for Spitz had been set for 9 a.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 5. On his way to meet the media, he heard confused reports that in the early morning hours, Arab terrorists had attacked the living quarters of the Israeli men’s team, but "no one in the Olympic Village really knew what had happened," says Spitz, recalling the tumultuous events 30 years later.

At the news conference, reporters besieged Olympic officials for news of the terrorist attacks, all but ignoring Spitz.

At 10:30 a.m., Spitz met with ABC-TV sportscaster Jim McKay for a prearranged interview and there saw the first footage of a white-hatted Black September terrorist negotiating with a German policewoman.

After the interview, Spitz says he went back to his quarters in the Olympic Village and watched the day’s competitions on television.

At noon on Tuesday, Spitz was visited by a delegation of Olympic officials, German security officers and U.S. State Department representatives. During on-and-off discussions that lasted until 4 p.m., it was decided that Spitz should leave immediately for home.

Unlike later Olympic Games, no security infrastructure was in place. Officials imposed an immediate news blackout on Spitz’s movements. Looking back, Spitz thinks that all the concern was probably unnecessary.

"I was the most recognizable face of the Olympic Games and everybody knew where I was, so if the terrorists wanted to track me down, they could have found me," he says.

Instantly, rumors circulated that Spitz had flown to Italy or returned to the United States. At 6 p.m., Spitz and his personal coach, Sherm Chavoor, were taken to the Munich Airport for a flight to London, arriving there around 8:30 p.m.

Early the next morning, Sept. 6, Spitz learned of the deaths of nine Israeli athletes (in addition to two coaches killed in the initial attack), five of the eight terrorists and a German policeman during a bungled rescue attempt at a military airport near Munich.

From London, Spitz flew to Los Angeles and on to Sacramento, for a hero’s welcome at the family home in suburban Carmichael. His face was on the cover of TIME and LIFE, and the world marveled at his lifetime achievement in setting 28 world records and 35 national records.

The only note slightly marring America’s lovefest with Spitz was the criticism in some Jewish publications, questioning his behavior following the murder of the Israeli athletes.

"Would it not have lifted man’s spirits if Spitz had declared his solidarity with Israel as a proud Jew?" asked an editorial in one Jewish weekly. "Would it not have been a magnificent gesture if he had dedicated his seven gold medals to the families of the slain Israeli sportsmen?"

Even after 30 years, such criticism still rankles Spitz, which he angrily labels as a "bunch of crock and garbage" by "fraidy-cats who wanted Mark Spitz to solve their problems."

At age 22, Spitz was told by the U.S. State Department to say as little as possible. "What did [the Jewish critics] want me to do? What could I have done?" he asks, adding, "It’s no use. I can never win in making my point."

Following his Olympic triumph, the "Jewishness" of Spitz became a favorite debating point among Jewish journalists and others who relish such speculations.

Swimming was the central, if not sole, focus of Mark’s life, since his father, Arnold Spitz, enrolled the 8-year-old boy in the swimming program at the Sacramento YMCA, counseling him that, "Swimming isn’t everything, winning is."

According to an oft-repeated story, when a local rabbi informed the senior Spitz that the swimming practice of 10-year-old Mark conflicted with his Hebrew school lessons, his father replied, "Rabbi, even God likes a winner."

Sometimes, Mark’s Jewishness and swimming complemented each other. He probably got his first international recognition when, as a 15-year-old, he won eight gold medals at the 1965 Maccabiah Games in Israel, and several more four years later.

Currently, he and his wife, Suzy, send their 10-year-old son, Justin, to a Jewish day school at Stephen S. Wise Temple, which was also attended by Justin’s older brother, Matthew. Both parents are frequent visitors at the school.

After a short stint as an entertainment personality and doing TV commercials, Spitz is now, at 52, a public and motivational speaker and an investor in real estate and other ventures. He works out four times a week at the UCLA swimming pool.

He does not intend to mark the 30th anniversary of the 1972 Olympics and rarely thinks back on the days of triumph and tragedy.

Looking beyond his own achievements, Spitz marvels at the much tighter security precautions that have become standard at all Olympic Games following 1972, and in practically all venues since Sept. 11. "I guess we have all become used to security measures which were not even thought of in 1972," he says.