Behind the Headlines: Israeli Athletes Score Big in This Year’s Special Olympics
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Behind the Headlines: Israeli Athletes Score Big in This Year’s Special Olympics

Avital Gur has reason to be proud. Mental retardation and Down’s Syndrome did not stop the determined Israeli athlete from winning one gold and one silver medal in two swimming events at the Ninth Special Olympics World Games.

Taking a break from the competition, which concluded here Sunday, the 25-year- old swimmer smiled at the excitement of the games.

“It’s fun to be here,” Gur said through a translator. “It’s great fun to compete with other swimmers.”

When she spoke, she had just missed winning a bronze medal by a split second. But her biggest victories were yet to come.

Gur was one of 12 Israelis — seven men and four women — who competed in this year’s Special Olympics.

Israel was one of 140 countries competing in the weeklong games. The 7,200 athletes ranged in age from 18 to 33. To qualify for competition, participants had to have an IQ of 80 or lower.

By the end of the competition, Israel had scored 22 medals — five gold, nine silver and eight bronze, plus a number of ribbons.

Giora Bar-Tov, Israel’s chairman of Special Olympics, is happy with the success of his team members, who competed primarily in swimming and track and field events.

“These activities have helped give participants physical and emotional training,” he said in an interview here. “If you have constant physical training, it helps increase your emotional makeup.”

“One girl,” he said, “was afraid to speak a sentence when she arrived. Now, she blossoms.”

But achievement is nothing new for Gur, who was born in the United States and moved to Israel with her Israeli parents when she was barely 2 months old.

She is known as a talented young adult who succeeds in everything she does, said her translator, Ursula Prochnik, with a big smile.

Gur works as a packager at an Israeli packaging company, not in a sheltered workshop, Prochnik said.

In addition to being an avid swimmer, she is a dancer and a handicrafts enthusiast.

Bar-Tov sees the Special Olympics as a chance “to help raise the consciousness about the mentally retarded.”

“These participants should not be seen as poor people — ones to pity — but should be seen as productive members of society,” he said.

Currently, 300 athletes participate in Special Olympics in Israel, Bar-Tov said, adding that he would like to see that number increase.

“We’re going to try to increase the number, because we think it’s very important,” he said.

Since their arrival on June 26, the Israeli athletes have been received with open arms. They took part in various activities sponsored by the Knights of Columbus of West Hartford, Conn., and the local Jewish community.

Before returning to Israel, the team was scheduled to visit New York City for some sightseeing.

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