The gold medalist who came back from the dead

When his helicopter crashed during the Second Lebanon War, doctors did not believe Noam Gershony would survive. On Saturday, he won tennis gold at the Paralympic Games

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

Noam Gershony (center) with his co-medalists at the London 2012 Paralympics (photo credit: Razi Livnat/courtesy IASP)
Noam Gershony (center) with his co-medalists at the London 2012 Paralympics (photo credit: Razi Livnat/courtesy IASP)

Among the thousands who watched Noam Gershony win Israel’s first gold medal of the 2012 Paralympic Games on Saturday was a group wearing white T-shirts with hand-drawn blue Israeli flags on them. They were friends from his previous career as an Apache helicopter pilot for the Israeli Air Force.

They had bought tickets only to the final stages of the London competition, such was their confidence in their former comrade.

Gershony’s current sporting career as a wheelchair tennis player began after his aircraft crashed and he was almost killed in action six years ago.

“They said, ‘Take him, there’s nothing to do [for him],’ but we didn’t give up,” the doctor who saved Gershony’s life in 2006 recalled in an interview with Yedioth Ahronoth on Sunday.

Gershony’s helicopter crashed during the Second Lebanon War. His copilot died on the spot and no one thought the then 23-year-old would survive his wounds. “His condition was very bad. He was bleeding from his nose, mouth and ears,” the doctor from the IDF’s elite search and rescue unit 669 told Ynet news.

Israeli soldiers and rescue team members stand at the scene of an Israeli army helicopter crash, July 2006 (photo credit: Haim Azulai/Flash90)
Soldiers and rescue team members at the scene of an army helicopter crash in July 2006. There were two that month, one of which was the one Gershony went down in. (photo credit: Haim Azulai/Flash90)

But Gershony did survive. After being airlifted to Rambam Medical Center in Haifa — with an emergency stop at a Safed hospital after a respiratory collapse, and a second one in an open field when his blood pressure dropped to zero — he began the long, arduous journey back to health. And wheelchair provided an opportunity to flourish.

Four years after the crash, Gershony started playing tennis at Tel Aviv’s center for disabled veterans, and not long after that — in 2010 — he was good enough to begin playing at international level. At his first Paralympics in London, he won gold.

“I never thought I’d represent the state in anything,” Gershony told reporters on the court after his win, a blue-and-white flag draped over his shoulders. “You can’t explain the feeling that runs through you when the anthem is played in front of so many people.”

‘We said that no matter what happened on the court — he had already won’

Indeed, the 29-year-old, with the toughest mentality, burst into tears as the anthem was played and the Israeli flag was hoisted high. “I’m on top of the world,” Gershony said.

Israeli leaders, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres, telephoned to congratulate and thank him. IDF Chief of General Staff Benny Gantz invited the former pilot to his office upon his return from London. “I salute you,” Gantz said.

Noam Gershony with the gold medal at London (photo credit: Razi Livnat/courtesy ISAP)
Noam Gershony with the gold medal at London (photo credit: Razi Livnat/courtesy ISAP)

Gershony’s mother, Pnina, compared her family’s emotions to those they had experienced six years ago while her son was in the emergency room. “We said that no matter what happened on the court, he had already won,” she told reporters after the victory.

The former pilot’s coach, Nimrod Bichlar, also burst into tears after Gershony beat the top-ranked wheelchair tennis player, David Wagner of the United States, 6:3, 6:2. Besides being a very talented tennis player, “Noam is also a special person and an Israeli hero,” Bichlar said. “I’m proud to be his coach.”

It was Gershony’s second medal of the games, after he and Shraga Weinberg won bronze in the doubles competition. The Israeli delegation announced he would carry the flag at the closing ceremony of the Games on Sunday.

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