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The 2004 Olympics Ol’ Man River: ‘paddling Papa’ Among Jewish Returnees at Games

July 30, 2004
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Joe Jacobi’s pain as he prepares for the Olympics is more emotional than physical. The canoeist/kayaker told JTA by e-mail that as he prepares for the Olympics in Athens, he misses his 3-year-old daughter, Seu Jane — named for the Spanish village that hosted some rowing competitions in the 1992 Summer Games — who is at home with his wife in Tennessee.

The pursuit of an Olympic medal usually conjures up a youthful single-mindedness, but like Jacobi, 34, many of the 15 Jewish athletes competing for the U.S. team at the Athens Games are veteran athletes who competed in previous Olympics.

Jacobi, nicknamed the “paddling papa,” won gold at the Olympics in 1992, the same year he was named USA Canoe/Kayak male athlete of the year.

Another veteran, swimmer Lenny Krayzelburg, a triple gold medal winner at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia, will also compete in Athens, where the Games will get underway on Aug. 13.

Kray! zelburg, a Jewish immigrant from Odessa — in what is now Ukraine — also has been a Jewish role model of sorts, once telling reporters that “Being Jewish is part of me, it’s part of my culture.”

He got his first American swimming experience, and his first job, at a JCC in Los Angeles shortly after his family arrived here in 1988 from the Soviet Union.

After setting world records in the 100-meter and 200-meter backstroke at the 2000 Olympics, he participated in the Maccabiah in Israel.

Nearly 29, an age considered ancient in a sport mostly dominated by teenagers and those in their early 20s, Krayzelburg made headlines in mid-July when he qualified for the American team by finishing the 100-meter backstroke in 54.06 seconds, behind world champion Aaron Perisol.

His teammate, 28-year-old Jason Lezak, another Jewish swimmer, won the 100-meter freestyle after setting a new American record of 48.17 seconds in the semifinals.

“Based on what you hear in the gene! ral public, you’d think there wasn’t much representation, but the list we have is very impressive,” said Jed Margolis, executive director of Maccabi USA/Sports for Israel. In certain sports, he added, Jews “are at the top of the world.”

Take, for example, Sada and Emily Jacobson. This dynamic duo of Jewish sisters may be Olympic neophytes, but they will enter the Olympic arena with high expectations.

Sada Jacobson, 21, is the top-ranked woman fencer in the world and in the U.S. and has said in press interviews that making the Olympic squad is honor enough.

Her teammates likely are honored to be competing alongside her, though: Not only is she the first American woman and second American fencer to reach the top of the world rankings, she is also a four-time world championship team member and a two-time NCAA saber champion.

Her younger sister, Emily, 17, is just a few lunges behind and the pair’s domination of women’s fencing has been compared to that of tennis’ well-known sisters, Venus and Serena Williams.

Emily, one of two! athletes to receive a 2002 Jules D. Major Award to Jewish High School Athletes of the Year, was ranked second in U.S. saber fencing in 2003 and was a 2003 Pan American Games bronze medalist.

The Games in Athens will also be the first for 28-year-old fencer Dan Kellner. This six-time world championship team member finished second in the foil competition at the national championships in 1997, 1998 and 2000.

But in 2000, Kellner did not make the Olympic squad. After a year hiatus, he came back and won a gold medal at the 2003 Pan American games, and his first national championship in 2004.

For Kellner, making the Olympic team reflects the eagerness of a younger generation that is following closely in the footsteps of those before them.

“My friends who have done it before say it’s an experience that will change your life,” he said in an interview with the New Jersey Jewish News.

At the opening ceremonies, “I plan to heed their advice and walk slowly — you ! only get once around the track,” he said.

In other sports, though, veteran Jewish athletes will be representing the U.S.

In track and field, Deena Drossin Kastor, who competed in Sydney, qualified in the marathon; equestrian Margie Engle, a member of the 2000 U.S. Olympic team, and the winner of five major equestrian competitions in 2001, will also compete.

Rami Zur, a newcomer to the American team who rowed in the canoe/kayak competition for Israel in 2000, will compete this year for the U.S. His dual citizenship allowed him to qualify for both countries’ teams.

In the non-Jewish world, Olympic medals are a pinnacle for sports achievement.

But Maccabi USA’s Margolis good-naturedly called the international competition a stepping stone for the Maccabi Games, which will take place in July 2005.

“The Olympics are our stepping stone,” he said. “You can win gold medals, but being part of the Jewish people is very special also.”

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