Local butterfly swimmer spreads his wings for Israel

Not that Israelis didn't appreciate their country's first-ever Olympic medals in Judo, but the Jewish state is hoping finally to triumph in a less esoteric sport in 1996. And swimmer Dan Kutler — originally from Santa Clara — is one-fourth of that dream.

Last year, Kutler immigrated to Israel to swim for the country's medley relay team, which earned a slot in the upcoming Olympics in Atlanta by finishing sixth in the European Championships in Vienna in August.

Now the team is known as the "Fantastic Four," and as Kutler describes it, "we're kind of famous in Israel. When we travel, we're bombarded by media. Everybody knows us. It's exciting. I'm a big fish in a small pond, and we're kind of like the Jamaican bobsled team."

The Israeli team may be underdogs — just like those dredlocked Jamaican daredevils who later became characters in a feel-good Disney film — but Kutler, 25, is confident that "we'll definitely" qualify for the final rounds, "and we could possibly have a shot at the bronze."

Kutler discussed the team's chances, his own swimming beginnings and his new life as an Israeli citizen in an interview last week. The swimmer is in the Bay Area for two months to train, to teach swimming clinics at local Jewish community centers and to look for sponsorship to help cover the cost of living and training in Israel, which has a relatively small budget for national athletics.

But if the country has few resources for its fledgling Olympic teams, it has high hopes. So does its fastest butterfly swimmer.

"Israel is in the public eye as a country of political turmoil and violence," Kutler says. "This relay could put Israel on the map for something else."

It's easy to see why the amphibious Kutler is creating a stir both in and out of the water. The blond, blue-eyed swimmer flashes a wry smile as he speaks easily about his passion for swimming, Israel and teaching kids. He carries his lanky 6-foot-4-inch frame with the graceful saunter of a model in a cologne commercial.

But while his looks may be striking, it's his stroke that may be his most beautiful attribute. At this year's World Cup 50-meter short course in England, Kutler's time was 24.29 seconds, ranking him seventh in the world.

"The key to the butterfly is the undulating motion, like a dolphin does. I get into that rhythm and it just flows," says Kutler, who adds that he has always loved what many consider swimming's most grueling stroke. "If you don't have a feel for the butterfly stroke initially, it'll be difficult."

As a child, just getting in the water was a challenge for Kutler.

"I was horrified of drowning and scared of the deep end," he recalls. Soon, a neighbor taught him to swim. At age 11, gold-medalist Mark Spitz spurred Kutler's desire to swim competitively when the Jewish swimming legend spoke at Kutler's congregation, Temple Emanu-El in San Jose.

Spitz "was the main impetus behind my getting into competitive swimming."

When Kutler was 15, a coach for the Santa Clara swim team saw him at a meet and told the Cupertino High School student he had talent and offered to coach him. Despite Kutler's late start in serious swimming, he qualified for the Junior Nationals at age 16, and the Senior Nationals the following year.

Kutler continued swimming at UCLA, where he was a sociology student and an All-American. His relay team still holds the record there.

It was a trip to the Maccabiah Games swimming for the U.S. team in 1993 that prompted his move to Israel. "I fell in love with the country, and decided I wanted to spend a lot of time there sometime."

That time came less than a year later, when Israeli swimming coach Leonid Schochat met Kutler at a meet in Monte Carlo, and invited him to compete for Israel.

Israel's relay team already had a backstroker, Eytan Orbach, a sabra; a freestyler, Yoav Bruck, also Israeli-born; and Vadim Alexsev, an 18-year old breastroke specialist from the former Soviet Union. But the Fantastic Three needed a fourth.

So, "I popped into the picture," Kutler smiles.

On the surface, the swimmers have little in common. But, "when we get together and swim, we're each other's best friends," he adds. "It's a completely altruistic experience. There's an energy that exists when you're swimming for three other people."

Kutler's training regimen includes daily five-hour workouts, divided between the pool and the weight room. Much of the rest of his time is spent trying to find financial sponsorship, so he can afford to live in Jerusalem, and keep his rigorous training schedule going.

And while he slipped smoothly into the team's butterfly slot, finding his groove in Israeli society was not always so simple.

At first, he admits he found Israelis "hard, obnoxious and rude." But as soon as he dropped his own "attitude of cultural superiority," he adds, he began to see the warm side of Israeli life.

"I saw the soft, sweet side of the country. And I fell in love with it. There's a value of life that you don't find here [in the United States]. They're surrounded by enemies, so they know relationships are precious. When someone says let's do lunch, they really mean it."

Though he made aliyah more for athletic than spiritual reasons, Kutler is considering living in Israel even after the Olympics. After Atlanta, however, Kutler says life will be strictly land-locked. The swimmer is hoping to return to school, start his own business and tour synagogues and Jewish community centers talking about his experiences living in Israel and competing for the Jewish state.

"I hope I can inspire some kid," he says, "the way Spitz inspired me."