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Australia’s Steven Solomon takes fast track to Olympics

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Sprinter Steven Solomon, the only Jewish member of the Australian Olympic team, playing for the Australian junior soccer team at the 2009 Maccabiah Games in Israel.  (Peter Haskin)

Sprinter Steven Solomon, the only Jewish member of the Australian Olympic team, playing for the Australian junior soccer team at the 2009 Maccabiah Games in Israel. (Peter Haskin)

SYDNEY (JTA) — Moments after Steven Solomon walked into Ramat Gan Stadium for the opening of the 2009 Maccabiah Games in Israel, the Australian teenager sent his parents a photo with a message describing how amazing it was to be at his first “Jewish Olympics.”

Last Friday night, Solomon, now 19, marched into the Olympic Stadium in London for the opening of the 2012 Games.

In Tel Aviv, the Sydney-born sportsman captained the junior soccer team; in London, Australia’s only Jewish Olympian will compete on the track — in the 400-meter race and the 4×400-meter relay.

The past 2 1/2 years have been a whirlwind, says his father, Michael, a South Africa-born orthopedic surgeon. “The whole thing has been quite surreal because it’s happened so rapidly,” he said this week.

In 2009, the young Solomon won the under-17s 400-meter race at the All Schools Championship. The following year, in Tasmania, he broke a record in the 400 meters that had stood for 27 years. Last year he won the 400 meters at the Australian National Championship and this year, despite suffering a hamstring injury, he managed to defend his national title.

Just two weeks ago, Solomon won the bronze medal at the World Junior Championships in Barcelona in a personal best 45.52 seconds. He also posted a blistering sub-45-second relay leg that helped the Australians qualify for London.

His success in Spain prompted Athletics Australia officials to select him over the veteran John Steffensen, an Olympic medalist who had defeated Solomon at the Olympic trials earlier this year, although neither managed an automatic qualifying time. The decision sparked a racial conflict in which Solomon was unwittingly in the middle.

Steffensen, 29, a black man of South African descent, threatened to boycott the Games in disgust, alleging discrimination by officials.

“I’ve put up with being racially vilified by this federation, being discriminated against on many teams,” he said of Athletics Australia. “You know it would help if I was a different color.”

Solomon has not been drawn into the scandal, but the reams of negative press about Steffensen inadvertently catapulted the young Aussie into the headlines. Steffensen, who was selected to race on the 4×400-meter relay team that includes Solomon, has since backed down on his boycott threat.

“The biggest pressure that I get from anyone is the pressure that I put on myself,” Solomon said in a news conference at the time. “So any pressure I get from other athletes is almost irrelevant.”

So how did a talented soccer player and keen surfer learn to tear up the track? 

Enter Fira Dvoskina, a Ukraine-born coach who has managed to wipe three seconds off Solomon’s time in the past two years.

Although the 77-year-old immigrant did not go to London — her husband is sick — she speaks to Solomon every day.

“We have to be realistic,” Dvoskina said. “First we have to make it to the semifinal. I believe he’ll make the semi and then anything’s possible.”

Solomon has a large cheering squad in Australia, led by Maccabi officials. Michael Vasin, the chief executive of Maccabi in Sydney, said Solomon — who won the Maccabi New South Wales junior Sportsman of the Year in 2009 and the Sportsman of the Year trophy in 2011 — was a “celebrity within our midst.”

“It’s unbelievable,” Vasin said. “He’s blown everybody away.”

Harry Procel, a Maccabi Australia veteran and head of the team for the 2013 Maccabiah Games, has followed Solomon’s meteoric rise and is traveling to London this week to watch him race.

“He’s a wonderful Australian athlete,” said Procel, a survivor of the ill-fated 1997 Maccabiah in which four Australians died when a bridge collapsed at the opening ceremony in Ramat Gan. “The fact he’s Jewish makes it even more special.”

But Solomon’s Judaism prompted a dilemma three months ago on the eve of Passover because the national championships clashed with the festival.

Although the family is not religious, Solomon never eats chametz, leavened products, on Passover, but his body requires carbohydrates to excel. So he visited his local rabbi, Levi Wolff, an American-born Chabadnik who runs Sydney’s largest Orthodox congregation, Central Synagogue.

“His coaches thought he had gone absolutely crazy, as he had been training for this race for months,” said Wolff, who gave him special dispensation to eat rice just as Sephardi Jews do during the festival.

Another fan, Barry Smorgon, the chair of Maccabi Australia, said Solomon “has done the community proud and has certainly been a worthy winner of the Maccabi awards. He is a humble young man. Hopefully he will be in Israel next year for the Maccabiah as well.”

Before that, however, Solomon has received a track scholarship to Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., where he will study medicine. He said he was inspired to follow in his father’s footsteps after going to Tonga in the South Pacific at age 16 to help his dad with an aid program.

“He’s got an amazing opportunity at Stanford to be running in the NCAA [National Collegiate Athletics Association], the best competition in the world for people at his level,” his father said.

First, however, Australia’s track sensation will attempt to upstage some of the world’s best, including the defending Olympic 400-meters champion, America’s LaShawn Merritt.

If he manages that feat, he will join baseball player Gavin Fingleson, Australia’s sole Jewish Olympic medalist, who won a silver in Athens.

“I definitely go in there with a goal to do something special and do something that people wouldn’t expect me to do,” Solomon told the media on the eve of the Games.

Solomon’s father, mother and sister will be in the stadium when the starter’s gun fires in the 400-meter heats on Saturday.

“As a parent, it’s agonizing,” Michael Solomon said. “Every year there’s been a bigger and better achievement. You think, ‘When is this all going to stop?’ ”

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