The atmosphere at the Wingate Institute in Netanya was electric as hundreds of fans cheered on their favorite swimmers in the finals, eyes glued to the pool.
Dozens of exciting races took place last week in a variety of categories, with athletes from all over the world putting every muscle in their body into junior, disabled, and open races. The men’s pro medley exhibition race was one of the most intense, with two particularly stacked teams, the US and Israel.
The US met its match in the race, for its three Olympic athletes and incredible fourth swimmer, 53-year-old Alexander Blavatnik, were competing against an all-Olympic Israeli team.
The Israelis took an early lead, with Guy Barnea dominating in the backstroke. The gap widened between the Israeli and US teams with Israeli Olympian Tal Stricker outperforming Blavatnik.
Yet halfway through the race, the tide turned, literally, as Olympian Anthony Ervin, who recently won two gold medals at the Rio Olympics, reclaimed the American pride – and lead – pushing past his Israeli competitor Eran Garumi.
The US continued to excel in the freestyle, with former US Olympian Jason Lezak finishing strong.
Lezak shared his thoughts on the race.
“I actually felt under-prepared for most of the race,” he revealed. “I was hoping not to be behind... I was really happy to see I was in the lead.”
He really enjoyed participating in the medley race, for he was able to swim with three of his incredible teammates.
“We all have a great camaraderie, we’re all good friends, so any time you swim with your friends and you’re doing something for more than yourself, that’s what I’ve always loved,” Lezak said.
It also meant a great deal to him to be competing at a Jewish event.
“You’re here not just as an athlete, but as a Jewish athlete, so putting the two together is special and you feel that, definitely in a race like this.”
Ervin also described his Maccabiah experience, sharing that he traveled to Israel six months prior to see the land and make sure that he wanted to join the Maccabiah team.
The swimmer had taken a 16-year break from swimming after his first Olympic run, returning to the sport in Rio last summer before agreeing to join the US at Maccabiah.
“Always staying in the pool was not the narrative for me,” he told The Jerusalem Post.
“When I made my way back, it was more organic; it wasn’t deliberate. My life just kind of brought me back to it... It’s just something that I am.”
Ervin shared the difficulties he faced as a young competitive swimmer.
“At a young age, when you’re successful at something, when you achieve over others in competition, you start to crave that kind of affirmation.
“A big part of my 20s when I wasn’t swimming was coming to terms with who I was, thrown into this universe without a choice. We don’t choose how we come into this world.”
“Every journey evolves as you mature,” he added.
Ervin described a lesson he learned on his journey.
“Motivation is kind of generated from within... When that goes away, then it becomes apathy.
When you don’t care, then it doesn’t matter.”
His motivation was certainly evident last week, though, as he fought for the gold alongside his fellow swimmers.
Perhaps it is what caused US Swim Chairman Rick Ehrlich to invite him to join the team.
“We made sure before we came here that we had the right coaches, [and the] coaches selected the swimmers.”
Ehrlich had asked all four of the relay members to join the team. He has had extensive experience in the swimming field, having swam in the 1985 Maccabiah Games and then serving as chairman for the last 16 years.
“It’s been great to sit here and watch it [the events], just a fantastic experience,” said Ehrlich of the exciting games.
Blavatnik is also absolutely loving the 20th Maccabiah Games.
As a patron of the games and a masters swimmer, in addition to being one of the four victors in the pros race, he shared his thoughts on Maccabiah, throwing in a bit of life advice as well.
Having put the pros relay event together, Blavatnik said, “The idea was just to bring attention to Maccabiah, bring attention to swimming.”
The race allowed viewers and fellow athletes to see the best, notably Jewish, swimmers in world compete. Blavatnik’s fellow men’s relay teammates have been to a combined total of eight Olympic Games.
“Maybe one of the [Jewish kids watching] will be the next Michael Phelps!” he said.
He considers swimming to be an overwhelmingly positive experience for all ages.
“Sports is a very good outlet for kids. Keeps them out of trouble” he said. He further discussed how the sport grows hard-working, disciplined, and self-aware athletes.
“The hard thing was staying with it, but the reward is tremendous – both in life and physically.”
He considers swimming to be a lifelong sport. “I’m 53 and I still feel good because I swim,” Blavatnik said.
Though the political circumstances in Israel are often tense, he was glad to put those aside during Maccabiah, joining his fellow Jewish athletes in their love for the sport.
“This is a really great way to do something positive. Sports is something that is very difficult to make political… when you’re in Israel and you’re doing sports, the politics kind of just falls away.”