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Articles > Olympic Notebook, Part 6: Competing to honor his father’s memory, swimmer remains in Beijing

As the Israeli flag was raised last week in the Olympic village to the sounds of Hatikva, it was an emotional event for all members of the Israeli delegation. But for swimmer Alon Mandel it was also a moment of painful sadness, thinking of a father who wouldn’t be around anymore to support him. He had been awakened at 4 a.m. that morning to be told that his father, Kostya, had died in a freak accident when falling from a ladder while changing a light bulb in the family home and incurring a fatal blow to his head.

At first, Mandel’s mother, Rina, had instructed the heads of the Israeli Olympic Committee not to awaken her son, but fearing that he might hear the terrible news from another source, decided to make the call.

Mandel, who will turn 20 later this month, made the decision to remain in Beijing after his mother told him that his father would have wanted him to stay, but urged him to put in the performance of his life. Mandel will compete in the 200m butterfly competition.

“At first I thought I was being awakened for a surprise drug test,” Mandel told reporters. “I couldn’t imagine any other reason to wake me.”

News of the accident spread through the delegation. Israeli Olympic Committee General Secretary Ephraim Singer noted that “the swimmers are a very tight-knit group and have trained together intensely over the last two years. We will do our best to make sure they are focused for the competition, but obviously it’s a very difficult situation.”

Israeli President Shimon Peres, making a visit to the Israeli delegation, made a special point of spending some time with Mandel, whose sister Maya traveled to Beijing to help him through the tough days, after which the two will return to Israel to join the rest of the family in mourning. This spring Mandel, who is from Netanya, completed his sophomore year at the University of Michigan, where he is studying chemical engineering. He is a two-time NCAA All-American and this season earned Big Ten Championship honors in the 400 yard medley relay. He was also honored with an athletic academic achievement award. Previously, he had twice been named the best swimmer in Israeli championship competition.

Failing to qualify for the Olympics when he missed finishing in the top 12 in his event by two-hundredths of a second, his spot was secured only a month ago when it was found that another qualifying competitor had tested positive in drug testing.

“My heart tells me to stay here,” Mandel commented, adding, “I will return home to be with my family just as soon as the competition is over.”

In other swimming news, 21-year old Gal Nevo from Kibbutz Hamadia in the Bet Shean Valley, took 6 seconds off his previous personal best in the 400m individual medley, setting a new Israeli record in that event with a time of 4.14:03. While his 11th place finish in qualifying competition was good enough to advance to the finals, it is one of the best Israeli performances in Olympic competition. Nevo also competes in the U.S., having completed his junior year at Arizona State, where he is the school record holder in the 1600m freestyle and the 400m Individual Medley, and has been named to the All-Pac10 team.

Yet another member of Israel’s swimming contingent at the Olympics who attends school in the U.S. is Itay Chammah, a freshman at Ohio State, who will swim in the 200m backstroke.

Another Israeli record was set in the heats of the 100m breast stroke by Tom Be’eri, with a time of 1.02:42, taking one-tenth of a second off of the previous record. An Iranian swimmer was slated to compete in the same heat, but did not take part, apparently under orders of his delegation leadership. “It doesn’t surprise me anymore,” Israeli delegation head Singer told The Jerusalem Post. “The Olympic spirit is as far from (the Iranians) as east is far from west. In the Athens Olympics one of their sportsmen, who was a gold medal favorite, had to pull out because he was (to compete) against an Israeli. There is no place for this kind of behavior in the Olympic movement, and it’s a shame it continues.”

Anya Gostomelsky got off to a great start in her own heat in the 100m butterfly with a split of 27.74 seconds, but ran out of steam a bit in the second lap. Finishing in 36th place, Gostomelsky set a personal record with a time of 59.50 seconds. Gostomelsky will also compete in the 50m free style, 100m freestyle, 100m backstroke and 100m butterfly.

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