Tragedy mars swimmer’s Olympic dreams

Alon Mandel, seen swimming for the University of Michigan, set an Israeli record in the 200-meter butterly in Beijing on Aug. 12, 2008 while mourning his father's death last week in Netanya. (University of Michigan)

Alon Mandel, seen swimming for the University of Michigan, set an Israeli record in the 200-meter butterly in Beijing on Aug. 12, 2008 while mourning his father’s death last week in Netanya. (University of Michigan)

JERUSALEM (JTA) – Israeli swimmer Alon Mandel realized his father’s dream when he qualified for the Olympic team.

Sadly, his father won’t be there to see his son compete, after an accident at the family’s Netanya home claimed Costa Mandel’s life.

In a tragic irony, Alon, 20, was in Beijing preparing to vie for a medal when he learned that his father suffered fatal head injuries after falling off a ladder outside the family home Wednesday night while trying to hang up a banner honoring his son’s Olympic bid. Costa was also Alon’s longtime coach.

“How do you say ‘semifinals’ in Chinese?” read the hand-painted banner, a testament to Costa’s optimism about the prospects of Alon, who joined the Israeli delegation after another swimmer was disqualified.

For the Mandel family, the loss was made more acute by the dilemma of whether to recall Alon from the Games. He is scheduled to compete Monday in the 200-meter butterfly race.

Alon’s mother, Rina, decided that the best way to honor Costa’s memory would be for her son to compete. His sister Maya joined him in Beijing, while another sister remained in Netanya to help arrange the funeral.

“You have to stay there and be strong,” Rina told Alon by phone Thursday in a conversation recorded by Israel’s Channel 10 television.

“You know your father waited for this moment. Your parents waited for this. We will be among 42 sets of parents watching,” she said, in reference to the size of Israel’s biggest-ever Olympic delegation.

Judaism places great importance on honoring the dead by attending the burial and, in the case of next of kin, giving up all activities to sit for the seven-day shiva.

Not everyone agreed with the Mendels’ thinking. Reams of comments on Web sites disapproved of Alon’s staying in Beijing.

Channel 10 quoted Alon as saying that when he swims Monday, he will imagine his father sitting in the audience, cheering him on along with the rest of his family and the State of Israel.

“I intend to muster all my strength and compete,” he said.

According to Ha’aretz, Alon will fly back to Israel after competing to take part in what remains of the shiva week.

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