"I am a rower, I am a rower."
These were the haunting words recorded on a video of an enthusiastic young man minutes before he perished with three of his closest friends in a car accident on the notoriously treacherous Arava road. The year was 1993, and the life of a potential Israeli Olympic rower was tragically cut short.
Yet the legacy of 21-year-old Daniel Amichai Marcus, an immigrant from England, did not end on a deserted stretch of desert. His zest for life and passion for rowing lives on in a multimillion-dollar sporting complex on the northern bank of the Yarkon River.
The roof of the Daniel Amichai Center for Rowing and Nautical Studies is shaped like an inverted canoe. Marcus's boat, brought over from England, hangs suspended from the clubhouse's high ceiling. Attached by clips are his old racing shoes.
The message is clear: If he was never to fulfill his dream of representing Israel at an Olympiad, "our vision is that, through Daniel, others will," says his mother, Linda.
"Everyone has different ways to deal with the loss of a loved one. The mother of one of the other kids who died went around to schools speaking about road safety. We wanted to commemorate Daniel not by associating with the act of his death, but to immortalize his love for life. We felt we could do this by creating a living memorial, perpetuating his insatiable passion for rowing," she said.
In partnership with the Tel Aviv Foundation, this is precisely what the family has achieved. Opened in 2003, the new home of the Israel Rowing Federation incorporates a rowing club, kayaking club, health club, a highly sophisticated facility offering simulator-rowing sessions, windsurfing, and sailboat activities.
"We also work with teenagers from disadvantaged neighborhoods and disabled people such as paraplegics and the blind," said Eitan Gluzman, the complex's manager.
Gluzman acknowledges that rowing has an image of being an elitist sport but that is changing. He draws an analogy with the meteoric rise in popularity of tennis in the 1970s, due mainly to the Israel Tennis Center program initiated by former South African Ian Froman.
"I recall playing tennis as a youngster. It had this aristocratic image that rowing still has today. There were few public or municipal facilities, and one had to be able to afford an expensive racquet. You had to have either a Dunlop or a Slazenger. Youngsters had to always be togged out in whites and belong to a club. There was an allure of exclusivity. Froman changed all that and made tennis accessible to kids all over the country. That is what we want to achieve with rowing," asserted Gluzman.
The facility enjoys the strong support of Tel Aviv mayor Ron Huldai, who recently said, "There will be a municipal school for nautical studies attended by hundreds of pupils from Tel Aviv schools. The center will serve as a base for professional training in the fields of rowing and sailing, and nurture competitive athletes. There will be facilities for training camps for the best rowers from around the world, while the center will offer the city's residents and visitors popular sports activities at reasonable prices."
The complex and its adjacent gardens and inner harbor, including spectator stands and a new public promenade, cover 28 dunams of Yarkon park. A pedestrian bridge currently under construction will connect the complex with the north Tel Aviv entertainment area on the southern side of the river.
The lower section of the two-story building functions as the boathouse, while the upper level is for studying and training. The boathouse has a large storage area for a wide range of boats, stored using a modern system of floating docks.
"It's the latest word in the world of rowing," said the center's public relations officer, Alon Ofek-Arnon.
A restaurant with an expansive terrace overlooks the competition finishing line across the Yarkon River. "This is a rowing center that can stand among the best in the world," said Ofek-Arnon.
It is a far cry from the primitive facilities that existed before, and Israel is now able to reciprocate invitations for its rowers touring abroad. In operation only since September 2003, the center has already hosted numerous foreign rowing clubs, including The Thames Rowing Club of London and the Lithuanian and Slovakian national canoe rowing teams as well as several world champions.
At 7 a.m. on any summer morning, the complex is a hub of vibrant activity as schoolchildren and businessman catch an hour or two on the river.
What a way to begin a day oars in unison break the water's surface. It looks so effortless as the boats glide speedily ahead: a visually majestic exercise of serenity, and a far cry for these rowers from the tumult that will characterize the rest of their typically Israeli day.
Four exhilarated rowers return from an hour on the water. It had been artist Martin Katzaur's first training session. What motivated this muscular thirtysomething, whose sport is cycling, to consider rowing?
"Rowing is like cycling without the trucks. You have the exercise and scenic beauty without the dangers of traffic."
Katzaur's poignant observation resonated in view of Marcus's tragic death.
"The other reason is my wife. She really got me into it. She's a serious rower, and her determination is amazing. She had only four months to get into shape after the birth of our baby before the Maccabiah, yet she took the gold medal in her category," he said.
With such a tough act to follow, it's not surprising to find Katzaur on the river while most other Israelis are still sitting down for breakfast.
Rowing was one of the original Olympic sports when the first modern games were held in Athens in 1896; but due to tempestuous weather conditions, the sport had to wait until 1900 in Paris for its Olympic debut.
Israel boasts all-year weather conditions suitable for training, and little holds the country back in its determination to make an Olympiad. Rowing was also accepted as a Paralympic sport this year.
"We are very hopeful that we will enter a team in Beijing in 2008," said Gluzman.
Like the Sword in the Stone awaiting an Arthur to stake his claim for kingship, Marcus's shoes stare tantalizingly at all who walk beneath them and aspire to the dizzying heights of this illustrious sport. It's only a question of time.
The public is invited to watch rowers from Tel Aviv compete in the Open Championships of Tel Aviv on September 23-24. For further information, (03) 699-0484, or firstname.lastname@example.org
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