SYDNEY, Australia (JTA) – David Zalcberg has cheated death and defied his doctors to compete in Beijing.
Zalcberg was 16, a rising Australian table tennis star, when he survived what he called the “horrendous experience” of the 1997 Maccabiah Games disaster.
A footbridge collapsed, plunging him and the rest of the Australian team into the polluted waters of the Yarkon River.
Four Australians died and scores were injured, including one of Zalcberg’s table tennis teammates, who broke both of his legs.
Zalcberg would face more challenges.
In 2006, during the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne, the left-hander suffered a prolapsed disc, sending him to the sidelines for eight months. In January 2007, during his first training session, he crashed his bicycle and broke his arm in two places.
“The doctors said I would never play again,” he told JTA on the eve of his departure for China.
It wasn’t until mid-2007 that he began the long road to recovery. Last month he won the doubles championship at the Australian Open, with partner William Henzel, for the third time.
Zalcberg, 27, says qualifying for Beijing was a bigger deal than competing at the Athens Olympics in 2004.
“I feel very, very lucky,” he says. “The highlight of my career, for sure, would have to be qualifying for these Olympics.”
Zalcberg is one of six table tennis players – three men and three women – from the Oceania region to reach Beijing. The top 64 players in the world qualify for the Olympics and compete in singles and a Davis Cup-style team event, which begins Wednesday.
He was the lone Australian Jewish athlete to make it to Beijing. Four qualified for Athens.
Zalcberg, who grew up playing at Maccabi and has competed at the North American and Pan-American Maccabi Games, recognizes the irony of playing table tennis in China – the overwhelming favorite to take the gold medal.
“It’s ridiculous,” he said. “To the Chinese it’s the premier event; they are so good. They have 20 million players and we have 20 million people in the whole of Australia!”
A graduate of Mount Scopus College, one of the largest Jewish schools in the country, Zalcberg just completed his medical degree and will begin working as a trainee doctor when he returns from China.
Regardless of his medal chances, Zalcberg is grateful to be donning a green-and-gold jersey for his country.
“I feel very lucky just to be able to get here,” he said. “This one’s pretty special.”