While both Jewish athletes took to the podiums in London this past week to receive medals, 18-year-old Alexandra (Aly) Raisman’s Olympic star was rising as 36-year-old swimmer Jason Lezak’s appeared to be setting.
Raisman, of Needham, Mass., helped Team USA take the women’s team gold on July 31 — the first Olympic gold medal for the U.S. gymnastics squad since the 1996 Games in Atlanta.
As of press time, Raisman was favored to win the all-around individual competition on Aug. 2, as well as the floor exercise on Tuesday, Aug. 7, when she also will be competing in the balance beam final. She and Gabby Douglas are representing the U.S. in the individual all-around finals.
Lezak, a four-time gold medalist likely competing in his last Olympics, helped the American men’s swimming team qualify for the 4×100-meter freestyle swimming finals. The team went on to finish second, receiving a silver medal — Lezak’s eighth medal overall in four Olympics. Lezak did not compete in the finals.
Meanwhile, the Israeli delegation was experiencing its ups and downs early in the Games.
On July 31, two Israeli medal hopefuls were faring well in windsurfing. Lee Korzits was in second place in the women’s eight-day-long RS:X event while Shahar Tzuberi was in 10th in the men’s competition.
The Israeli judo team was expected to do well after winning four medals in recent European matches, but judoka Alice Schlesinger was eliminated from competition early this week.
Political differences between Israel and its Arab neighbors came to London when the Lebanese judo team refused to practice next to the Israeli team. The Lebanese erected a makeshift barrier to split their gym into two halves, according to the Times of Israel.
Meanwhile, even before the start of the Games, Iranian judo athlete Javad Mahjoub withdrew from the competition, citing “critical digestive system infection,” according to the Washington Post. That led to widespread speculation that Iran was maintaining a longstanding policy of not allowing its athletes to compete against Israelis.
At the Games, the American swimmers led all the way in the men’s 4×100-meter relay July 29 until Yannick Agnel of France pulled ahead of Ryan Lochte in the final lap. France finished first in 3 minutes 9.93 seconds, ahead of the United States (3:10.38) and Russia (3:11.41).
Lezak, though he did not swim in the relay, helped his teammates Lochte and Phelps qualify in the morning preliminaries.
While he has not said whether he would return for another Summer Games, Lezak, who was inducted into the National Jewish Hall of Fame in 2010, is the oldest member of the U.S. men’s swim team.
“As the body gets older, sometimes the mind wants to go hard for a lot longer. But I’ve learned over the course of the last several years how many laps is enough, how many is too much,” he told the Los Angeles Times.
Since his historic comeback at the Beijing Olympics, Lezak has participated in Israel’s Maccabiah Games, winning four gold medals last summer, and taught swimming clinics for neighborhood kids at the Merage Jewish Community Center of Orange County in Southern California. He has two children and is an active member of Temple Isaiah in Newport Beach.
“It’s something for me to get in touch more with Jewish kids and hopefully inspire them,” he said in 2009. “I really didn’t have anyone like that growing up.”
Raisman scored 15.325 in the floor exercise to win that event, performing her routine to a string-heavy version of “Hava Negillah.” Raisman performed to the same song when she gained a berth on the U.S. team last year.
She is trained by Mihai and Silvia Brestyan, the Romanian couple who coached the Israeli national team in the early 1990s. The coaches and her mother selected “Hava Negillah” after several exhaustive late-night online searches.
She is proud to be using the Jewish song “because there aren’t too many Jewish elites out there,” Raisman told JTA last year. And, she added, “I like how the crowd can clap to it.”
Raisman is a recipient of the Pearl D. Mazor Award for outstanding female Jewish high school scholar-athlete, given out by the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in New York.
Other notable performances of Jewish athletes included U.S. fencer Timothy Morehouse, who lost to Italy’s Diego Occhiuzzi in the quarterfinals.
In tennis, Israel’s Shahar Peer was eliminated by Russia’s Maria Sharapova, one of the top-ranked players in the world.
In men’s gymnastics, Israel’s Alexander Shatilov qualified for the finals of the floor exercise after finishing fourth overall. He also qualified for the Aug. 1 all-around individual final after finishing 12th overall.
In men’s rowing, David Banks of the U.S. team finished first in the preliminaries and qualified for the finals.