NEW YORK (Oct. 11)
Geulah Siri was three months old in 1949 when her family arrived in Israel from Yemen. Within a few weeks, she had contracted polio, which left her with a permanently stiffened left leg.
Today, Siri is a triathlete about to compete in her sixth Special Olympics and a past winner of multiple gold medals.
She was one of 62 disabled Israeli athletes who stopped off in New York this week, en route to Seoul, South Korea, where the Special Olympics begin Oct. 16.
Siri was eager to get there to show her stuff in the discus, javelin and shot put. All 89 pounds of her quivered with excitement as she talked about her sports this week at a midtown Manhattan hotel.
The unusual stopover is necessary for the Israelis. There is no direct airline to Korea from Israel, or any point nearby, so the Olympic competitors are forced to fly from Tel Aviv to New York, and then fly again for 18 hours to reach Korea.
The athletes and their 18 coaches and directors didn’t appear at all daunted, as they wolfed down fish and vegetables in a dining room whose wall of windows showed them a dollop of the Manhattan skyline.
The New York stop was made quite homelike by directors of two American organizations that host and help the Israeli disabled reach their highest potential: Friends of the Israel Sports Center for the Disabled, and Friends of the Disabled War Veterans.
Both have contributed funds to allow the Israelis to participate in the Special Olympics.
As Siri attests, not all Israeli disabled are war veterans. Some of the athletes had lost feet by exploding mines in army exercises. Others had cerebral palsy, several had polio.
CLASSES OF COMPETITION
The athletes compete in several classes, including the wheelchair-bound, the amputee and those who can stand.
Yosef Luttenberg, a droll man with a twinkle in his eyes and a smile, is national chairman of the Israeli Disabled Veterans Organization.
Wearing a maroon tie emblazoned with the Israeli Disabled Veterans symbol — a wheelchair athlete inseparable from a Star of David — Luttenberg explained that every summer groups throughout the United States host Israeli disabled veterans.
Luttenberg is director of the Sports Rehabilitation Center for the Disabled Veterans and Their Families. The center visits hospitals for recruits. “We bring them straight from the hospital to the sports stadium. It’s the best thing for them.”
Reuven Heller, director of sports for the Israel Sports Center for the Disabled, explained how favorably the one-legged competitor in the butterfly competed with an able-bodied swimmer.
In the same competition, the one-legged swimmer achieved a record in one minute, three seconds, the able-bodied swimmer in 50 seconds. The disabled competitors, Heller underscored, “are very highly skilled.”
The Israeli athletes range in age from 20 to 44. The criteria on which they were chosen to compete were first, second or third placement in world standing in their sport.
Their sports vary widely, including wheelchair basketball, swimming, track and field, target shooting, weight lifting and goal ball for the blind.
Among the group are nine women who have 26 children between them and an incredible drive to compete.
Some of the athletes were competitive before they lost limbs, and simply continued.
Miri Siso, a victim of cerebral palsy since the age of six, has been swimming her whole life. She participated in the Special Olympics in Long Island, New York in 1984.
Ruth Kedar, who was paralyzed in her legs in the Six-Day War, began shooting targets 14 years ago from her wheelchair.
Last year, she won the silver medal in the international competition in England. She has three children, all sports-minded, all of whose names mean some kind of ocean wave.
Asher Doron, who also lost his foot in an army exercise, is the world’s top disabled shooter.
Now en route to his second Special Olympics, he placed second at Long Island four years ago, but achieved first place last year in Holland in the world championship on the air rifle.
Assaf Agmon, a mechanical engineer, has been paralyzed in both legs since being injured in the Suez in 1970.
Now, he’s heading for his fifth Special Olympics as a champion swimmer. “Sports makes me stronger. It makes life easier for me,” he said with a big grin.