Olympics 2008: Swimmers lead U.S. Jewish contingent
NEW YORK (JTA)—For Jason Lezak, Ben Wildman-Tobriner and Garrett Weber-Gale, the marketing possibilities are endless—perhaps “The Three Chaverim” or “Jews in the Pool.”
All three Jewish sprinters are hoping to make a splash as part of the U.S. men’s swimming team heading to Beijing for the 2008 Summer Olympics.
Not only will they be competing as individuals, but they are expected to make up three-fourths of the 4×100-meter freestyle relay team.
“We joke about going to the Maccabiah Games and setting a world record,” Lezak tells JTA, referring to what is known as “the Jewish Olympics.”
Toss in 41-year-old Dara Torres, another Jewish swimmer and sprinter who will be competing in her fifth Games, and the possibilities rise even higher.
The swimmers are among the seven Jewish athletes believed to comprise the American Jewish contingent headed to China. They are a mix of veterans and newcomers, all with a realistic chance of acquiring medals at the Games, which begin with the opening ceremony Aug. 8.
Already, Wildman-Tobriner and Weber-Gale have their nickname: the “hyphenated Jew crew.” That makes for some good-natured fun around the pool, Wildman-Tobriner says, adding that he is proud to represent his heritage—along with the United States—in China.
Another Jewish athlete eyeing water-related success for the Americans is kayaker Rami Zur, who is in his second Olympics for the United States after representing Israel in the 2000 Games.
Some Jewish land lubbers also will wear the red, white and blue in Beijing: fencer Sara Jacobson and marathoner Deena Kastor. Both won bronze medals in ’04 in Athens.
Lezak is competing in his third Olympics and has garnered four medals on relay teams, including a gold in the 4×100 medley in ’04. At 32, he is the oldest male to qualify for an Olympic swim team.
“That’s an accomplishment in itself,” says Lezak, of Irvine, Calif.
At the recent U.S. Olympic trials in Omaha, Neb., the 6-foot-4, 215-pounder broke the American record in the 100-meter freestyle with a semifinal time of 47.58, setting himself up as the probable anchor on that relay team.
“Winning medals in the relays is such an amazing feeling, being a part of a team,” Lezak says, speaking to JTA by telephone.
In part, it was his disappointment as an individual competitor in Athens that spurred Lezak to keep his Olympic dreams. He failed to qualify for the finals in the 100-meter freestyle, though Lezak says he had a “great opportunity” to win an individual medal.
“I took the preliminaries too lightly,” he admits. “I was thinking about how many races I had to swim and I saved too much energy.
“I learned a horrible lesson, but it kind of got me going another four years. I kind of felt like I had unfinished business.”
Now Lezak, who will be competing in relays and in the 100-meter race, wants to mount the podium by himself.
“I’m a team-type player,” he says, “but to do something on your own feels pretty good. I have a lot to prove to myself. I know I’m capable, I just haven’t done it yet.”
He’ll have plenty of competition from Weber-Gale, of Milwaukee, and Wildman-Tobriner, a fellow Californian. Weber-Gale, 22, edged Lezak in the 100-meter finals in the trials.
Weber-Gale, who won the World Championships in 2005 and 2007, will be making his Olympics debut after narrowly missing a spot four years ago. He expects to compete in the 50- and 100-meter freestyle and on the 4×100 freestyle and medley teams.
The University of Texas All-American predicts an outstanding Olympics for the U.S. squad.
“I think this is the best Olympic swim team ever assembled,” Weber-Gale told the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle. “There are several events where we could get multiple medals, and we could win all three relays.”
Wildman-Tobriner, 23, also is making his Olympic debut. The Stanford University All-American will compete in the 50-meter freestyle and the relay.
“To finally be able to participate is going to be really exciting,” he told the j. the Jewish news weekly of Northern California. “It still hasn’t really sunk in yet.”
Lezak, who has been coaching himself the last two years, says he met his younger Jewish colleagues at the ’05 World Championships.
“They were in a different stage of their lives,” he says. “They were in college, and the international scene was more important to me.”
Lezak says they mostly talk to each other about their common Jewish identity.
“You don’t see that too often,” he says of three Jewish Olympians in the same events. “They’re both nice guys and we all get along.”
The younger duo hasn’t yet picked the brain of their more seasoned colleague, Lezak says.
“Once you start getting to the Games, to the Olympic village, people are more curious of the type of things to expect, more questions come up,” he says.
They can all learn from Torres (photo), a member of the Jewish International Sports Hall of Fame.
Despite having a 2-year-old daughter, the Los Angeles native who now works out in southern Florida qualified in the 50- and 100-meter freestyle, though she will compete in only the former in Beijing.
Torres, who graces the cover of Time Magazine’s Olympics preview, which touts “Dana Torres & 99 More Athletes To Watch,” is a nine-time Olympic medalist, including four golds. She established an American record at the trials finals in the 50-meter freestyle with a time of 24.25; Torres broke her own mark set in the semis.
“That she’s doing her best times is phenomenal,” Lezak says. “She’s pretty inspiring to all the athletes out there.”
Her success at an advanced age for athletes has brought suspicions of doping, but Torres has passed every drug test.
“I’ve gone beyond the call of duty to prove I’m clean, but you are guilty until proven innocent in this day and age, so what else can I do?” she told Time. “It’s a real bummer.”
Zur, the kayaker, is seeking his first medal in his third Olympics. He has failed to reach the finals as an individual in the 500-meter event or in the two-man 500- and 1,000-meter events.
The 5-foot-9, 160-pounder is considered a contender as he vies solo in the 500, despite a severe spinal injury that jeopardized his career.
“I want to go there and come back with some hardware,” Zur, 31, told the j.
The native of Berkeley, Calif., was adopted as an infant by a kibbutz couple near the Sea of Galilee. His proximity to the sea helped develop his love of water sports.
“Kayaking was the first sport where I could go wherever I wanted to,” he says.
The Israeli Olympic Committee cut back on funding for his training following the Sydney Games and he left the Jewish state for the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif., where he lived for free.
Zur says the Israelis were understanding of his choice to wear U.S. colors.
Kastor, 35, is another Jewish Californian bound for Beijing. A two-time Olympian, she holds the American records in the marathon and half-marathon. In April, Kastor won the U.S. Olympic trials in Boston with a time of 2:29:35.
Her bronze in Athens was the first medal for an American marathoner in two decades.
Jacobson, 25, of Dunwoody, Ga., brings a No. 1 world ranking in sabre to China. Her sister Emily was on the ’04 Olympics fencing team; her father, David, was a member of the ’74 national squad.
Jacobson, who attends Yale University, is a two-time winner of the U.S. women’s sabre championship.