Going For The Gold: Israeli Paralympic Team Is Hoping To Score In Rio
The 2016 Olympic Games may be over, but the Paralympic Games are just getting underway. Taking place in Rio, Brazil from September 7-18, the Paralympic Games will include 4,350 athletes from 178 countries, who will compete in 23 disciplines.
This year Israel will be represented by 30 athletes, 15 men and 15 women, in 11 disciplines. The country’s 2016 Paralympic team is larger than the 2012 delegation of 25, thanks to the addition of Israel’s first-ever women’s goalball team, captained by blind Israeli-Arab Elham Mhamid.
Unlike other Paralympic sports which were specially adapted for people with disabilities, goalball was developed after World War II as a rehabilitation activity for the blind in Europe. Participants compete in teams of three, throwing a ball embedded with a bell toward the opponents’ goal.
Twenty-five year old Mhamid, an undergraduate student of education and theater, is visually impaired due to a genetic disease. She has been playing goalball for about 10 years and joined the Israeli team from the start.
A medal-winning tradition
Since the first Paralympics in Rome in 1960, Israeli athletes have won an astounding 380 medals: 124 gold medals, 124 silver medals and 132 bronze medals. At the 2012 games which took place in London, the Israeli team took home one gold, two silver and five bronze medals.
Here are some of the most promising medal hopefuls:
Rowing: Moran Samuel
Paralympic rower Moran Samuel is among Israel’s top medal candidates in Rio. An outstanding athlete, Samuel actually began her sports career playing basketball. After her military service, she played on the national basketball team. In 2006, she suffered a spinal stroke and became paralyzed in her lower body. After she recovered, she completed her academic studies at Haifa University and became a physical therapist, and then worked with the Paralympic Sports Association team on the re-establishment of the Israeli women’s wheelchair basketball team.
Although she only started to row in 2010, Samuel represented Israel at the 2012 Summer Paralympic Games in London, finishing fifth. In 2015, she won the gold medal at the World Cup event in Lake Varese, defeating the reigning world champion, Norwegian rower Birgit Skarstein. At the 2015 World Rowing Championships held in Lac d’Aiguebelette, France, she won the gold medal in the women’s AS single sculls, thus earning a spot at the 2016 Summer Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro.
Tennis: Shraga Vainberg
Another strong medal candidate is 50 year-old wheelchair tennis player Shraga Vainberg. Paralyzed in his upper body, Vainberg was ranked 8th in the world in wheelchair tennis in 2008. He won a bronze in doubles tennis four years ago and will have the honor of carrying the Israel flag at this year’s opening ceremony. In Rio, Vainberg will team up with doubles partner Itay Erenlib.
Swimming: Inbal Pezaro
Paralyzed in her lower limbs from birth, swimmer Inbal Pezaro began playing sports at the ILAN center in Haifa at the age of five and began competing in international swimming competitions at the age of 12, eventually becoming a certified swimming instructor.
This will be Pezaro’s fourth Paralympics. In the 2004 Athens games, she won silver and bronze medals in the 2004 aged only 16. She then went on to win three silver medals in Beijing in 2008 and three bronze medals in the 2012 Games in London. In 2007 she was awarded the “Sportswoman of the Year” title by the Israeli Association for Disabled Sports.
Shooting: Doron Shaziri
As a result of a landmine explosion near the Lebanese border during his army service in 1987, Doron Shaziri lost a leg. But by 1989, Shaziri was already training in both wheelchair basketball and shooting at the IDF Disabled Veterans Organization’s Beit Halochem. In 1996, Shaziri decided to focus on shooting only and focus on expanding his business, Pro-Fit, which manufactures professional sports wheelchairs. A top-notch shooter, Sharizi has medaled at six previous Paralympics. Walking with the help of his prosthetic leg, he was Israel’s flag bearer at the 2012 Paralympics opening ceremony, at which he won a silver medal. The gold medal he nabbed in the 2015 Open Championships in Germany meant Shaziri could head for the Rio Paralympics.
HandCycling: Koby Leon
Hand-cyclist Koby Leon was severely wounded in combat activity inside Lebanon in 1996 while serving in the ‘Egoz’ Special Forces Unit of the Golani Brigade, leaving him wheelchair-bound for life. Leon won a silver medal in the Hand Bike category at the Paralympic games in London in 2012 and is a member of the Hand Bike Team of Tel Aviv’s Beit Halochem. Last year he won the Gold Medal at the 2015 World Circuit Tournament competition in Mangiano, Italy, and another one this year when he came in first place at the Para-Cycling Road World Cup in Bilbao, Spain.
The future looks bright
Most top athletes begin training in their youth, but many of Israel’s Paralympic competitors entered their respective sports only after becoming disabled later in life. That is why in 2012 Israel started a new program to identify and promote both Olympic and Paralympic athletes at a young age.
“The initiative is starting in Jerusalem, Ashdod, Beersheba and in the north, including Arab and Bedouin towns,” Dr. Ron Bolotin, professional manager of the Israel Paralympic Committee and the Israel Sports Association for the Disabled in Tel Aviv, said in an interview. “We’ll see the outcome perhaps in 2024, as we have 250 new children starting to train in Paralympic sports.”