Still rolling: Getting inspired by Paralympic gold medalist Namer Wolf

Wolf competed in five Paralympics, representing Israel in London, Seoul, Barcelona, Atlanta and Sydney, from 1984 until 2000.

Getting a post-practice hug from granddaughter Abigail Wolf (photo credit: DIANA BLETTER)
Getting a post-practice hug from granddaughter Abigail Wolf
(photo credit: DIANA BLETTER)
It’s Sunday evening and three-time Paralympic gold medalist Namer Wolf is zipping around in his wheelchair in the gym at the ILAN (Israel Association for Children with Disabilities) Sports Center in Kiryat Haim, Haifa. He moves his special sports wheelchair this way and that, aims for the basket, and makes the shot, practicing and playing with some of his wheelchair-bound teammates, the way he’s done for the past 50 years. Although he turns 70 in May, Wolf still moves with agility on the court, sometimes playing with men who are one-half – no, one-third – his age. He keeps rolling. 
Wolf has a warm smile and he’s quick to laugh, despite the difficulties he’s faced since he was four and-a-half months old and contracted polio. Polio, a highly contagious disease caused by a virus, attacks the nervous system and may result in spinal cord paralysis. For Wolf, it paralyzed his entire body for several months and left him unable to move his left leg muscles. Children younger than five years old are most likely to contract the virus than any other age group but Wolf was the youngest baby in Israel with the disease. However, he has managed to transform his physical difficulties (he’s had 28 operations on his body) into resilience and strength.
Wolf competed in five Paralympics, representing Israel in London, Seoul, Barcelona, Atlanta and Sydney, from 1984 until 2000. In addition to his Paralympic gold medals in discus throwing and shot put, he also won six silver and bronze medals, including a silver in the pentathlon, which includes javelin throwing, shot put, discus, and a sprint wheelchair race of 200 meters and 1500 meters. He also held the world record for discus throwing for 12 years, from 1984 to 1996.
Wolf was born to Holocaust survivors from Romania who arrived in Israel in 1948. The family lived in the Arab village of Tarshiha along with 35 other refugee families. 
“The villagers learned to speak Romanian,” Wolf said, whose father, Shmil, 95 years old, also learned fluent Arabic. The family then moved to Moshav Ben Ami, across from the Western Galilee Medical Center, where Wolf still lives. His father and mother, Gisella, who died in 2018, grew vegetables on their 40 dunams (ten acres) of land and raised cows and chickens. 
Although the polio affected Wolf’s ability to walk and he wore braces on his legs, by the age of three, his father took him out to work in the fields, and by the age of seven, Wolf was already milking cows. He said the milking strengthened his hands, making him good at handling a basketball. After working with his father each morning, he used to bicycle to the sea to swim in the nearby town of Nahariya.
When Wolf was 11, he met a boy named Matsko Arad who played basketball. Arad encouraged Wolf to play and they became friends. Fast forward forty years: When Arad injured his knees and could no longer play ordinary basketball, Wolf encouraged him to play wheelchair basketball, which Arad has done for the past 20 years.
Wolf worked as an accountant for several large companies until the ILAN Sports Center opened in Kiryat Haim in 1985 and hired him as its treasurer. He wanted to devote his time to help people with disabilities, which he did until he retired in 2018. 
MATSKO ARAD (left) on defense with Wolf, during practice at the ILAN Center, Kiryat Haim, Haifa. (Diana Bletter)MATSKO ARAD (left) on defense with Wolf, during practice at the ILAN Center, Kiryat Haim, Haifa. (Diana Bletter)
On the court, Wolf and Arad still have fun, dribbling and shooting around each other. Wolf said he is still good at defense but not as fast as he once was. That doesn’t stop him from playing against men who are so much younger than he is. Recently, when a player asked him how old he was, Wolf told him that he was probably older than his grandfather. Wolf was right. 
Wolf has been married to Nava (Honen), an art history teacher, for 41 years. They have four children who all grew up on the same Ben Ami farm, where Wolf and his wife live, opposite the original house where Wolf’s father still resides. The Wolfs’ eldest daughter, Noa, owns Mashu Taim, a cookie company; their son, Nimrod, manages the farm, which now consists of avocado groves; their daughter Naama won a scholarship to play soccer at Thomas University in Georgia and now works as an accountant; and their youngest son, Nadav, is an optometrist. 
Their names all start with the Hebrew letter, Nun. In 2010, Wolf decided to change his first name from Nachman to Namer, which means tiger. He said that when he was younger, other children laughed at him “more because of my name than my disability.” When Nadav was born, he wanted to name him Namer but his wife objected, and then, in 2010, Wolf decided to change his name for himself. He asked his mother if that was alright with her since she named him after her father. 
“She said, ‘Do what’s good for you,’ and she called me Namer until she died,” Wolf said.
Wolf’s first love is basketball but he competed in individual sports on an international level. The greatest moment of his sports life occurred during the World Games in 1994 in Berlin. Wolf said the games were held in the same stadium where Hitler held the Olympics in 1936 to “show off the superiority of the Aryan race.” 
Wolf explained that many athletes lose some percent of their ability when they compete because they’re so nervous and excited, but Wolf learned to stay calm and channel that nervous energy into “extra adrenaline” that helped him perform even better than he normally did. 
He won first place. Second place went to an athlete from Egypt who refused to attend the awards ceremony because, Wolf said, “he didn’t want to stand lower on the podium than an Israeli.” When the Egyptian athlete refused to attend, Wolf said that he would not attend either.
“I was stubborn and challenged him as well as the Games Committee,” Wolf said. “I believe that if he could compete in the games, he could attend the awards ceremony. It was a matter of good sportsmanship.”
Wolf said they reached a compromise: The other athlete agreed to attend the ceremony as long as they stood on the grass, not on the podium. And then came the pinnacle of Wolf’s career. In front of a crowd of 60,000 spectators, “Hatikvah” was performed. Afterwards, a German Jewish man, who had grown up in Berlin and survived the Holocaust, said he never believed he’d hear “Hatikvah” played in Hitler’s stadium. 
(Right) GOING FOR a shot at the Israeli National Championships of wheelchair basketball, 1986. (Courtesy Wolf)(Right) GOING FOR a shot at the Israeli National Championships of wheelchair basketball, 1986. (Courtesy Wolf)
THE FIRST Paralympic games for athletes with disabilities were organized in Rome in 1960, and then in Toronto in 1976, other disability groups were added, making it possible for athletes with different disabilities to compete in international sports competitions.
When Wolf started training for sports, physically-challenged athletes were not recognized, he says. He used to be embarrassed to ask for travel expenses to attend practice. In 2007, a government committee recommended giving financial and professional resources to develop and encourage competitive and Olympic sports, granting sport scholarships to all athletes, including those who are disabled.
During the recent practice at the ILAN Center, Wolf took a break to talk with some of his friends, including his childhood friend, Matsko Arad, who just turned 70; Eliezer Moralli, 65, who’s played for about 47 years at ILAN and also had polio as an infant; and Sami Tangi, 62, another polio survivor. 
“I come here for the sport,” said Moralli, a father of four.
“It’s not only for sports,” said Arad. “For me, it’s also to be social and maintain connections with everyone.” Usually, 15 men attend practice, Jews as well as Arab players, some of whom became disabled because of automobile and work accidents. The old-timers form the core of disabled athletes at the center, which also has a swimming pool and other sports facilities. 
Wolf credits his parents for telling him he could do anything he wanted, and the influence of a high school sports teacher who believed in him and encouraged him to do sports. The teacher, Joseph Borgin, was killed in the Six Day War.  
Wolf said he believes that talent is important but you have to do something with it. Then he added with an ironic laugh, reminiscing about his long sports career, “The older I am, the better I was.”