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Emigres Get Along Swimmingly in Bid to Make Olympics Splash


Droplets of water sliding down the Star of David tattoo on his right arm, the 22-year-old swimmer from Kansas City crouches into a diving position and listens for his coach’s call.

"Boom," bellows Leonid Kaufman from the bleachers.

Max Jaben plunges into the water, disappearing into its blueness only to emerge half a length later. It’s a drill he will repeat dozens of times this practice, an exercise to build lung capacity for the swimmers on Israel’s Olympic team

Kaufman and Jaben, both immigrants, are living and training together intensively at the Wingate Institute, the country’s national sports training campus outside of Netanya, ahead of next month’s Olympic Games in Beijing.

That is when they aren’t at training camps around the world, most recently in Mexico and Spain.

"I’m learning English as we go," jokes Kaufman, 50, a swimming coach in the former Soviet Union, of their relationship.

Jaben, for his part, is trying to improve his Hebrew. Coach and athlete speak in a mix of the two along with the language they know best: swimming.

"It’s a different mentality, he’s not Israeli and he’s not Russian," says Kaufman, who immigrated to Israel in 1991, as he stood at the pool’s edge and mused on their differences. "Americans act very freely."

Jaben made aliyah last summer after discovering Israel in 2005 when he swam in the Maccabiah Games.

"It’s an overwhelming feeling to swim for the U.S., but it means a lot more to swim for Israel when you are Jewish," Jaben says.

Jaben grew up in the suburbs of Kansas City, the son of a family that has been in Kansas for nearly a century. Kaufman comes from Gomel, a large city on the banks of the Sozh River in southeastern Belarus.

Now they live in adjacent dormitories, take their meals together at the Wingate cafeteria and train about six hours a day.

Kaufman, wearing shorts and a gray Speedo T-shirt, a stop watch slung around his neck, shouts out times from the bleachers while Jaben swims the butterfly, his shoulders and arms plowing through the water.

In Beijing, Jaben will be swimming the 200- and 400-meter freestyle events and possibly the 200-meter butterfly.

In the European Championships, he set an Israeli record in the 200-meter freestyle at 1:49:48, finishing in 11th place.

Jaben credits his improved times to his work with Kaufman.

"I became more efficient with my strokes," he says.

The young swimmer notes a marked difference working with Kaufman, a former swimmer and coach in Belarus — some of his charges were on the Soviet national team — and his American coaches whose focus is more on endurance.

"I’ve had to change a little bit the way I view a coach," Jaben says.

"His philosophy is very different. It’s a lot more scientific, focusing on the technical aspects of swimming where I have never really had that before. It’s a good relationship — he was very open to wanting to coach me when I came here, and our relationship has definitely grown."

Kaufman, the head coach of an Israeli Olympic swim team that includes Jaben, three other men and one woman, says he was taken by Jaben’s exuberance.

That decidedly American trait, Kaufman says, helps Jaben with his performance and drive.

"A person who gets fired up gets results," the coach says.

But he is skeptical Jaben will stay in Israel for the long term.

"He’s a good Jew," Kaufman says, "but he’s an American."

Jaben says he hopes to make Israel his home, not just a place to promote his swimming career.

As someone who grew up the only Jew in his circle of friends, being in Israel has been a revelation.

"It’s a connection I never really had and always wanted," he says. "It’s a huge honor to be representing Israel because Israel is what I am and what I aspire to be."

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