The first thing you notice about Teddy Kaplan is the smile. From the moment you first meet him, it never fades - a calm, easy, confident smile that seems to radiate simultaneously from both his mouth and his bright, blue eyes. At age 72, Kaplan has a lot to smile about: a positive attitude, excellent health and a spry, muscular body that allows him to swim, sprint, lift weights and play tennis like a 22-year-old.
Kaplan is one of those rare individuals whose whole lives are about one thing - one interest, one set of goals, one purpose that drives them, defines them and gives their lives meaning. For Kaplan, that 'one thing' has been the all-consuming raison d'etre of his life since he was old enough to talk. "There's no question about it," he says as his smile broadens out to a grin, "what drives me is sport. Sport is the beginning and the end of my existence. Sport is me and I am sport."
"I became an athlete at the age of seven," he recalls. "At my primary school, Vredehoek PS in Cape Town, there were athletic competitions and I used to run in the sprints. The starter would begin the races by dropping a white handkerchief. When it hit the ground, we ran. One day, I was taken to compete in a regional competition, representing Vredehoek. There, the starter began the race by firing a gun in the air. He said, 'On your mark, get setâ€¦' and boom, the pistol went off. All the other kids shot ahead of me, but I was startled, frozen. I wasn't used to that. But then I picked myself up, started running, and I beat them. Later that evening, my school principal said to my mother, 'Mrs. Kaplan, if Teddy had in his head what he has in his feet, he'd be a genius. So ever since then, I have tried to be a genius in sport."
Sport is what brought Kaplan from Cape Town to Israel in 1969, where he competed for South Africa in the Maccabiah Games (the 'Jewish Olympics'). He came again with his family a year later to make aliya, attracted by a broader range of opportunities in sports and a stronger Jewish environment for his growing children. Today, Kaplan is the father of five grown-up children and seven "wonderful, wonderful, wonderful," grandchildren.
Although close, he lives apart from his family. Divorced since 1989 - he readily admits this was due to his single-minded devotion to sports - he has lived by himself at the Wingate Institute for Physical Education and Sports near Netanya since 1990. His accommodations at Wingate are best described as spartan: a tiny kitchen - barely large enough to stand in - leading into an equally small bedroom, sparsely furnished, decorated mostly with pictures of his family tacked to a closet door, one or two larger pictures along one wall, and a few obviously well-thumbed, dog-eared paperback books. Nothing more. A visitor soon realizes, however, that this monkish cell is little more for Kaplan than a room for the night. Kaplan's real home is Wingate's gym, Olympic swimming pool, track and tennis courts. "I'm in my own personal Garden of Eden here," he says happily. "I'm just a few steps away from the gym, the tracks and tennis courts, as well as just minutes away from the ocean."
He focuses most of his attention to body building, power lifting, Olympic weightlifting, track and field athletics, tennis, swimming and skill boxing (a form of competitive boxing in which there is no physical contact with the opponent - participants are judged on stance, style, movement, offense and defense). Competitive in all these sports, he considers Olympic weightlifting his best sport.
Kaplan has competed in a total of 11 Maccabiahs, amassing scores of medals in several sports, as well as athletic events around the world. He has represented Israel in such diverse venues as New Zealand, Austria, Denmark, the US and Iran. He proudly recalls that his victories in a competition in Slovakia caused Hatikva, Israel's national anthem, to be played in a land where it had not been heard for more than 30 years. He is presently in the throes of training for the upcoming 2007 World Masters Athletics Championships in Riccione, Italy this summer, where he hopes to compete in the pentathlon, among other grueling events.
All of this would be extraordinary enough for someone many years younger, but Kaplan is 72. How does he do it? Is it all about exercise and diet, or is there a portrait of Teddy Kaplan hidden away in a closet somewhere, relentlessly aging? "I work extremely hard in the gym or on the track," Kaplan explains. "If you were to phone me at half-past nine any morning, I would either be in the gym or on the track. And that same day, if you were to phone me at half-past four, I would either be on the track or in the gym." As for diet, he says that while he avoids fried foods, he otherwise eats pretty much anything he wants. His breakfast regimen, unchanged for 40 years, consists of grapefruit juice, coffee without sugar and two slices of whole wheat toast - one with peanut butter and the other with honey. He is particularly fond of chocolate. He drinks rarely. "The last time I was pissed," he says with a wink, "was last summer during the World Cup. The time before that, I can't remember."
Surprisingly, Kaplan admits to having been an ardent cigarette smoker from the age of 18 until the day in 1976 that he suddenly experienced a mild attack of dizziness. He went immediately to a doctor who told him to stop smoking, which Kaplan says he did, that very day, cold turkey. Kaplan also takes care of himself. He arranges to take frequent blood tests, as well as a full battery of clinical exams twice a year - everything from electrocardiograms to colonoscopies - once on his birthday, and once again six months later. "I'm a hypochondriac. For the smallest little thing, I go running to a doctor," he says.
The results of all of this are a degree of physical conditioning that allows Kaplan to say, "I'm 72-years-old. No man in the world is better than me in sport. No man in this world can beat me. I excel in seven sports. I see weightlifters, but I don't see them in swimming competitions. I see tennis players, but I don't see them swimming or sprinting. I can do it all, and I invite any man in the world, 60-years-old and above, to try to beat me in any of the sports in which I compete. You can call this 'Teddy's Challenge.'"
In addition to athletic competition and round-the-clock training, Kaplan worked for many years as a fitness, tennis, weightlifting and track and field coach, training several Olympic and World medalists as well as participants in the Special Olympics. These days, he supports himself as a personal fitness trainer. His clients, who Kaplan says come from all walks of life and varying levels of fitness, are first tested and evaluated by sports doctors and clinicians at Wingate. Based upon the test results, Kaplan designs a fitness plan individually tailored to each client's physical capacity and fitness goals. "My main task as a personal trainer," he says, "is to inspire my clients, keep them motivated and help them achieve their objectives."
As he goes about these varied activities, however, his thoughts are focused on somehow getting himself to Rome this summer to compete in the World Track and Field Championships on behalf of the State of Israel. Kaplan has little doubt that he will be both physically and mentally ready to compete. The problem, as always, is money. "This is a bit of a sore point," he says as his smile begins to fade. "I have been representing Israel in the Master's category in body building, weightlifting, and track and field all over the world since 1981. I've competed, I've won, I've had our national anthem played all over the world, and I've brought home medals. And always, I've had to pay my own way. I've had no financial support whatsoever from the government. And I have no money."
Kaplan says that he sold off his personal possessions and even cashed in his own life insurance policy in order to travel to some of the events in which he has competed on Israel's behalf.
So, in the absence thus far of either governmental support or perhaps some kind philanthropist willing to sponsor him, Kaplan is preparing to raise money for Rome the best way he knows - by getting as many people to exercise as he possibly can. From Thursday, March 1, he will be conducting daily (except Saturdays) physical fitness classes on Poleg beach in Netanya. Beginning at 6:00 a.m., each one-hour class will consist of aerobic training such as walking or jogging along the sand dunes, flexibility drills and muscle strengthening exercises. Kaplan emphasizes that the classes are intended for both sexes, all ages and sizes, and every level of fitness. Each participant will be closely supervised to ensure that he or she is working out at the correct heart rate level. The cost of each session will be NIS 25 - less than the price of a fastfood hamburger.
"The proceeds from these classes will go towards enabling me to represent Israel at the games in Rome," he says. "But the bottom line is that people will have fun. Also, in the long term, I hope that the participants will be imbued with the idea of keeping fit for life. If my classes at Poleg persuade just one person to change his lifestyle and get healthier, I think I will have accomplished something."
For further information about Teddy Kaplan's physical fitness classes at Poleg Beach, call 052-2560048.