Last Thursday, the 2012 Paralympic games began in London with sharpshooter Doron Shaziri proudly carrying the Israeli flag at the opening ceremony. Though the Israeli Olympic team returned home with no medals this year, the Paralympic team has a much stronger record, and now a bronze medal compliments of paralympic swimmer Inbal Pizaro. Congratulations, Inbal!
Israel has won 333 medals in the Paralympics over the years, more than a third of them gold — 113 to be exact. At the London 2012 Games those numbers are already growing.
Israel is something of a sporting empire in the Paralympics. In 2008, six Israelis made it to the podium. The national medal total ranks 13th overall in the history of the Games.
At the 2012 London Paralympic Games begins, Israel will have 25 athletes, aged 20-60, competing in nine different disciplines, with high expectations. “We won’t return without medals,” Danny ben-Abu, chairman of Israel’s Sports Association for the Disabled, promised reporters at the airport in Tel Aviv before leaving to London. A promise that has already delivered.
Established in 1948 by a Jewish doctor who escaped Nazi Germany, the Paralympics used to be known as “parallel” or “special” Olympics. They remain parallel, but feature some radically diverse stories.
I had the pleasure of meeting sharpshooter Doron Shaziri shortly before he left for the 2012 London Paralympics. Today, I would like to focus on another inspiring athlete; former basketball player for the Israeli national team turned paralympic rower.
Moran Samuel was a member of Israel’s national basketball team — the regular, fully functional team, where people run, dribble and throw the ball like NBA players. Then, one fateful day, everything changed.
“One morning I was hanging out my laundry,” Samuel recalled. Out of nowhere, she felt “a sudden sharp pain in my back and I couldn’t breathe.”
Samuel called an ambulance and went to lie down. By the time the medical team arrived, she couldn’t move her legs and had to be carried on a stretcher. On the way to the hospital “I kept punching my legs” but couldn’t feel anything, the athlete told Walla News years later. At 24, with a promising basketball career ahead, she had suffered a rare spinal stroke. “In one moment my body was erased.”
The talented athlete had to adapt to a new life, but she didn’t give up her love of sports. In fact, she kept playing basketball with the national wheelchair team and, eventually, took up a solo sport as well. After much persuasion by her life partner (now wife), Limor Goldberg, Samuel joined her in rowing.
In London, the 31-year-old will participate in her first Paralympics and as she says, “My dream is Olympic gold.”
Samuel acknowledged it was Goldberg who got her hooked on rowing. “I would never have tried it; basketball is where my heart is,” she told Ynet. After a number of refusals, she caved in and tried it. She started practicing once a week, but soon the hobby was taking up more and more of her time. “I learned to love it,” she said. “It gives me things no other sport gave me.”
While she still plays basketball, and remains a member of Israel’s national wheelchair team, Samuel said her priorities changed once it was clear there was a chance for a Paralympic medal.
Samuel made headlines in May when she won gold at the World Cup rowing competition in Italy. For whatever reason, the organizers did not have Israel’s national anthem on hand and thus couldn’t play it when the blue-and-white flag was lifted over the podium.
Others might have been discouraged or annoyed. Samuel decided to act. She asked for the microphone, and, up on the podium, sang the Israeli anthem from start to finish.
“A character like hers can’t be bought,” her coach said afterwards. “It also can’t be earned through practice.”
That podium finish in Italy was an opportunity for Samuel to share her philosophy with the world: “If you look at the obstacle as an obstacle, there’s a chance it will knock you down. If you look at it as a challenge — you do all you can to pass it.”
I want to take this opportunity to wish all of our paralympians luck, though I’m pretty sure this truly inspiring group of people don’t need it!