Representing Israel with pride

US-born track star Donald Sanford gifts his recent medal to ‘the State of Israel and its citizens, mainly its soldiers.’

‘Israel is really diverse...They really made me feel welcome and treated me as if I was born here,’ said Sanford. (photo credit: JAMES MARGOLIS)
‘Israel is really diverse...They really made me feel welcome and treated me as if I was born here,’ said Sanford.
(photo credit: JAMES MARGOLIS)
It should hardly come as a surprise that many foreign athletes who switch allegiances to represent Israel are almost immediately welcomed with suspicion.
Take American Jillian Schwartz, for example. She received Israeli citizenship thanks to the Law of Return, and went on to represent the country at the London Olympics two years ago (despite spending no more than several weeks in Israel). Shortly afterward, Schwartz returned to the States as if she was never even part of the blue-and-white delegation.
Yet for every Jillian Schwartz there is a Donald Sanford.
Though he spends much of the year training in the US, the center of Sanford’s life has been Israel since he moved to the country four years ago.
The 27-year-old is married to Danielle Dekel, whom he met when she played basketball at Central Arizona College and he ran for Arizona State University. Danielle currently plays for Elitzur Netanya, of the Israeli women’s top division. The two live in Kibbutz Ein Shemer, northeast of Hadera, and have a young daughter.
Since he received citizenship three years ago, Sanford has been one of Israel’s top track athletes. However, it wasn’t until last week that he made headlines outside the world of athletics. Sanford made history by becoming the first Israeli to claim a sprint medal at the European Championships last Friday, finishing in third place in the 400-meter final in Zurich.
The California native broke the Israeli record for the second time in three days, clocking a time of 45.27 seconds in the final. He entered the final stretch in fifth place, but picked up the pace as he neared the finish line – on the way to becoming just the second Israeli ever to claim a medal at the European Athletics Championships.
“I’m an athlete and I’m competitive and I went for it,” said Sanford, following in the footsteps of Alex Averbukh, who won the gold medal in the pole vault competition at the Europeans in 2002 and 2006. “I didn’t think I would break the record again in the final, but I felt good and my legs felt good. I executed the race exactly like I planned. I gave it my best shot and it worked out.
“This medal is my ultimate gift to the State of Israel, to its citizens and mainly to its soldiers.”
Sanford came a mere nine-hundredths of a second from winning a medal at the European Championships in Helsinki two years ago, finishing in fourth place.
He arrived at the championships in Zurich in excellent form after breaking the Israeli record in Belgium four weeks ago, clocking a time of 45.53 seconds, which he twice improved on in Switzerland.
Sanford has made a point of dedicating each and every one of his recent triumphs to the IDF, a gesture which exemplifies the strength of the connection he has developed with Israel.
“I have had a chance to meet so many different people from so many places, and Israel is really diverse,” he told The Jerusalem Post. “They really made me feel welcome and treated me as if I was born here. So I guess I can say I do feel like a full-fledged Israeli.
“They say home is where all your stuff is, and all my stuff is in Israel – so I do consider it home,” he added. “I was born in California and my mom still lives there, so that will also always be home. But I’m in a new life now.”
Like most immigrants, the transition to a new country wasn’t simple for Sanford.
“I was willing to make the sacrifice and take the steps to get used to being in Israel and living in a different country,” he explained. “It was a process, and I’m still learning.”
Sanford said that training under the threat of rocket fire from Gaza over recent weeks hasn’t worried him. But he is concerned about the well-being of his family.
“There’s not much I can do to change anything. I just try to focus on what I can control,” he said. “Any moment something can go wrong. But if you live this way and worry all the time, then you won’t ever achieve anything.
“My main concern is my family. You just want to be able to do anything you can so they will be safe. My wife and daughter have been very supportive of my training, and that has been a big help for me.”
Israeli athletics is currently in the midst of some lean years, and Sanford has some advice for those running the sport in the country.
“I feel like you take care of the athletes who are doing well, but you should be taking care of the younger ones who are trying to do well and continue to support them,” he suggested. “Start from the bottom and move your way up through the system. I have seen a lot of young athletes who have been improving a lot, so maybe the situation will start to get a little bit better soon.”
Sanford also represented Israel at the London Olympics two years ago. He failed to advance past the first round and his performance is mainly remembered for the fact that he was forced to run with shoes he borrowed from another athlete, after his shoes were stolen shortly before his heat.
Sanford described the London Olympics as a “bittersweet experience,” but insisted he had put it behind him.
“It was everything I ever wanted and dreamed about,” he said. “But with the circumstances and how it turned out, it was really tough to deal with. It was really difficult for me, but I have learned to put it in the past; I have grown from it. Regardless of the scenario with my shoes being stolen, I was still able to run a pretty decent time.
It will always be a memory that I will keep with me, and it definitely made me stronger.”
After winning a medal at the European Championships, Sanford can already begin to prepare for next year’s World Championships in Beijing, which take place one year before the Rio 2016 Olympics.
“My goals for next season will be to compete in the World Championships and the European Indoor Championships,” he said. “Making the criteria for Rio 2016 next year is at the top of the list. It is very important to get the criteria nice and early, so I don’t have to worry about it so much and can focus on training.
“I want to represent Israel with pride in Rio.”