London Paralympics

Tales of tragedy, trauma and inspiration behind Israel’s Paralympic medal hopes

As the Paralympics open in London, meet the basketball pro who fought back from a rare spinal stroke, the swimmer with a deadly past, and the sharpshooter who lost his leg to a landmine

Aaron Kalman is a former writer and breaking news editor for the Times of Israel

The Israeli Paralympic delegation to London 2012 (photo credit: Raz Livnat/ISAD)
The Israeli Paralympic delegation to London 2012 (photo credit: Raz Livnat/ISAD)

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 very likely to grow.

Medal-free at the London Olympics, 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.

Inbal Pezaro (left) and Moran Samuel (right), two of Israel's Paralympians (photo credit: Raz Livini/ISAP)
Inbal Pezaro (left) and Moran Samuel (right), two of Israel’s Paralympians (photo credit: Raz Livini/ISAP)

On Thursday, when competition 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.

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. Here are three — tragic, controversial, and unique — from the Israeli team.

The anthemic 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.

“In one moment my body was erased.”

“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.”

The swimmer with a deadly past

Izhak Mamistvalov has three Paralympic swimming medals. Twice he won gold while setting Paralympic records. He was born with cerebral palsy, a severe and incurable motor handicap, and swims with only his right hand.

However, Mamistvalov isn’t a hero to everyone. In 2008 he lost control of his specially designed car and drove it into a crowded bus stop, killing two people. As a result the swimmer, one of the most decorated athletes at the 2004 Athens Games, did not join the Israeli team in Beijing in 2008, announcing shortly before the start of the Games that he could not represent his country in light of the tragic incident in which he had been involved.

“It’s horrible that a man like this is going to represent Israel at the Olympics”

During his trial, the court took into consideration Mamistvalov’s physiological state and did not send him to prison — even though it found him guilty of negligent homicide. He was sentenced to 400 hours of community service, a NIS 15,000 compensation to each family and had his driver’s license revoked permanently.

Since the accident the 32-year-old has won a number of international medals, and in April 2012 he set a new world record in the 100-meter heat, his strongest competition.

Mamistvalov’s return to the national team, and the fact that he was set to represent Israel at the 2012 Paralympic Games, did not sit well with the families of his victims.

“It’s horrible that a man like this is going to represent Israel at the Olympics,” Eyal Hasiddim, whose father, Mordechai, was killed at the bus stop, told Yedioth Ahronoth. “How does he have the conscience to do such a thing?”

Hassidim did not hide his emotions. “This man should be in his room, in his house, and should not be allowed to represent us,” he said. Mamistvalov “cannot be sent [to international competitions] by Israel,” he told the Hebrew daily.

Two years ago the families of those killed by the decorated Olympian requested that Sports Minister Limor Livnat bar Mamistvalov from representing Israel in international competition.

Mamistvalov “cut through three traffic lanes and hit a bus stop,” Hassidim said. He didn’t sit in jail “and didn’t even apologize,” so “the country should not be funding his trip and granting him the privilege of participating in the Games,” he said.

Though the swimmer refused to respond, his coach did. Mamistvalov paid his debt to society and was hoping to win a medal, Noah Ram told Yedioth.

“The families won’t be happy that he’s representing Israel,” Ram said, but there was another side to the story: Mamistvalov was “paralyzed in both legs and one arm, and active with only one arm. Swimming rehabilitation is his entire life.”

The sharpshooting wheelchair-maker

Sharpshooter Doron Shaziri is one of team Israel’s most decorated members, with six Paralympic medals. This summer, after he carries the blue-and-white flag at the opening ceremony, he’ll take aim at his first Olympic gold.

“It’s just a quirk that I haven’t won gold at the Olympics yet,” he told the Israeli sporting site One. The same competitors attend every international competition, he said, noting that he had won gold at the European and World championships.

The Ramat Gan resident was injured by a landmine at the age of 20 while serving with the Golani Brigade in southern Lebanon.

“I saw I had no leg, but [wondered] how do you fix it with a prosthetic?”

“I was worried someone would accidentally discharge a bullet and kill me,” Shaziri said of the moments after the incident as he waited for the rescue forces to reach him.”I saw I had no leg, but [wondered] how do you fix it with a prosthetic?” he told the Sports Channel years later.

As a result of the explosion, the marksman — who had finished his sniper’s course with flying colors — had his leg amputated below the knee. Shaziri turned to sports as part of his rehab.

Since he started competing as a sharpshooter, the 45-year-old has won multiple international medals as well as the European and World titles.

Shaziri attributes much of his success to the coaching of Guy Starik, a four-time Israeli Olympian and world record holder. Starik really helped him hone his abilities, he said in a 2007 interview with Haaretz.

“You have to bring yourself to the peak at the right moment, and that’s what I’ve been training for”

The sharpshooter works at a store in Ramat Gan, where he makes custom-made wheelchairs for disabled athletes. His earnings are mostly spent providing for his wife and two children.

“Training every day would mean neglecting my business, my income source, but I would be performing better if I could,” Shaziri told the Forward before the 2008 Olympics.

At the ’96 Games in Atlanta he won two silver medals, and in the following two Olympics he added three bronze and another silver to his shelf.

“It’s a question of timing,” Shaziri said, of winning the ultimate prize. “You have to bring yourself to the peak at the right moment, and that’s what I’ve been training for.”

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