Jason Lezak — no newcomer to Olympic glory — recognizes the difficulty in returning to the medal stand at the London Games.
“I definitely would hope to … get onto the podium there and win a medal for the USA,” said Lezak, a seven-time Olympic medalist, speaking by phone last week from the U.S. swim team’s training camp in France. “With Australia, France and Russia, there’s going to be a lot of tight competition, and it’s not going to be easy, that’s for sure.”
The Jewish swimmer, winner of four Olympic gold medals, will race for the United States in the 400-meter freestyle relay — the event in which he provided one of the most enduring moments of the 2008 Games in Beijing. His frenetic sprint to the finish in the last leg, overcoming world record-holder Alain Bernard, earned victory for the United States and kept alive Michael Phelps’ drive for a record-setting eight gold medals.
This year, in his fourth Olympics, the 36-year-old Lezak is one of five captains for the 530-member American squad. Fellow Jews joining Lezak with the U.S. contingent are former Olympian and U.C. Berkeley swimmer Anthony Ervin (see story below), gymnasts Alexandra Raisman and Julie Zetlin, rower David Banks, fencer Tim Morehouse and fencing coach Yury Gelman.
To this list, j. columnist Nate Bloom adds fencer Soren Thompson, Merrill Moses on the water polo team and Mark Mendelbratt, in sailing.
(Illinois-born Jillian Schwartz, a pole vaulter on the American team at the 2004 Athens Olympics, will be representing Israel.)
Some touted Jewish athletes didn’t make the cut this time. They include swimmers Dara Torres (five Olympics, 12 medals), Garret Weber-Gale (two gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Games), Andrea Murez (2012 NCAA champion in the 200- and 400-meter freestyle relays), Daniel Madwed (2012 Big Ten champion in four events) and Eric Friedland. San Francisco’s Ben Wildman-Tobriner, who won gold in Beijing in 2008, has retired from competitive swimming.
Gelman is heading to his fourth Olympics as a coach. He taught fencing to elite athletes in his native Kiev, then moved to New York in 1991. He couldn’t find work in his field, so he spent a year and a half selling doughnuts at a flea market along a New Jersey highway. He went on to serve 17 years as the fencing coach at St. John’s University in New York.
Morehouse and three other Gelman proteges qualified for London, where the fencing events will begin on Sunday, July 29.
Gelman, a Brooklyn resident, does not belong to a synagogue or any other Jewish organization, which he attributes to the Soviet repression that made his late parents loath to introduce Judaism to their children.
“In the Soviet Union, we weren’t religious. It was prohibited,” Gelman said. “The Kiev synagogue was pretty far from where I lived. My parents never talked about it.”
Lezak is one of many Jewish Olympians — including nine-time gold medalist Mark Spitz — who have also competed in Israel’s Maccabiah Games.
A member of Temple Isaiah in Newport Beach, Lezak lit the torch to start the 2009 Maccabiah near Tel Aviv. Leading up to the Olympics, he was following reports of the International Olympic Committee’s refusal to set aside a moment of silence to honor the memory of the 11 Israeli Olympians murdered at the Munich Games 40 years ago.
Lezak was still hopeful last week that the IOC would make what he called the “right decision” in London. But, he acknowledged, “I cannot make that decision. [The IOC is] in a no-win situation.”
Robert Dover, who has won four medals for the United States competing in equestrian events in six Olympics, is heading to his seventh Games, this time coaching Canada’s equestrian team. (He grew up in Chicago and Toronto.)
His road to Olympic glory began on Grand Bahama Island in 1969, where he celebrated his bar mitzvah. His parents arranged for a horse to be flown in as a present.
“It was a great first horse for me. His name was Ebony Cash,” said Dover.
He says he is proud to be a member of the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame and Museum. “There are many more Jews in the sport than people know of,” he said.