Sparkling diamond anniversary swim

The Kinneret Swim has grown to be the third-biggest swimming participation event in the world.

The Kinneret Swim 521 (photo credit: Paul Alster)
The Kinneret Swim 521
(photo credit: Paul Alster)
THERE’S SOMETHING almost otherworldly about driving through the Galilee before the sun rises. I’m not of course speaking from a position of great authority, as I normally find it difficult to emerge from my slumbers before the children head off to school; but in this case, I made an exception.
The 60th anniversary of the fabled Kinneret Swim was well worth getting up for.
As dawn broke, the light across the Galilee filtered stunning shades of orange and purple through the dark skies – colors I’ve rarely seen before. And I wasn’t alone. By 6 a.m. on October 5, the road began to fill with carloads of people all heading in the same direction; all heading for the southern tip of the mystical Sea of Galilee to attempt a feat that has for many Israelis become something of a must-do ritual, a way of connecting with nature, with the myriad of peoples that inhabit this tiny country, with the Land of Israel itself.
Unlike the regular balagan – the craziness, the chaos – that is part of everyday life in Israel, the organization of this special event, sponsored for the last 20 years by swimwear manufacturer Speedo, was hard to fault. So, too, was the carnival spirit of the participants who arrived to swim either the 1.5-kilometer crossing or the more challenging 3.5-kilometer route.
Everyone waited patiently in line after signing in at the arrival zone. There was no pushing or shoving, no shouting, no arguing.
This was the public at its best, sharing fruit with total strangers, chatting and laughing in their flip-flops, before being shepherded onto a fleet of buses that transported them to the far side of the Kinneret, as the Sea of Galilee is known locally.
“It’s all about the sporting challenge of getting from one side to the other and testing yourself physically,” explained 70-yearold Hagai Palti, founder of the Kinneret Swim Veterans Club. If you want to join this select band of 24 senior citizens, you have to have completed at least 40 crossings of the Kinneret.
“WHEN I was 11, I wanted to do the swim,” says Palti, a junior swimming champion in his time, “but the rules stated you had to be at least 15 years old. When I finally got the chance [in 1958], I was so proud. It was very much a rite of passage and gave me a great sense of achievement. It still does to this day.”
The first official Kinneret swim was back in 1954, but the challenge of the crossing had attracted other swimmers in the years before the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.
In 1942, Aliza Wirst swam right across the middle of the lake, more than nine kilometers from the city of Tiberias on the western shore to Kibbutz Ein Gev in the east. Accompanied by a boat, and with three others swimming in rotation alongside to encourage her, she reached Ein Gev in a time of just under three hours and 32 minutes. Many decades later, at the age of 90, she accompanied her daughter, Dr. Na’ama Constantini, on the last few hundred yards of the crossing to commemorate the occasion.
Some years after her famous swim, Wirtz summed up her feelings on the achievement.
The now defunct Hebrew newspaper, Davar, quoted her in the fashion of the time.
“Throughout the first hour I felt the small waves on my face. The blue waters of our ancient Kinneret, the Kinneret of our forefathers, soothed me with motherly softness. I did not intend to break the record. I felt a true togetherness with nature as I struggled on.”
Among the ranks of the Kinneret Veterans Association, Rina Sharav is the oldest female, at the age of 78. The oldest male is 87-yearold Adar Hagai, who swam the course this year for the 55th time.
“This is my 45th crossing,” Sharav tells The Jerusalem Report. “Last year, I received an award and swam across with my four children and six grandchildren. It got into my blood from the moment I did it the first time.
Every year I’m getting older and ask myself if I’ll be able to do it again, and every year I manage to do it. I hope I’ll be able to continue as long as possible. I have two young grandchildren, twins aged five, who are learning to swim and say they are learning so they can do it [the Kinneret crossing] with their grandma.”
Alongside the more than 10,000 people ranging in age from seven to 87 who took part in this year’s swim were two ambassadors who decided to test themselves and take up the challenge.
Matthew Gould, the British ambassador, swam the short course in 2012, and decided to tackle the longer swim this time. “I find there is something special about swimming in open water. Add to that – that it’s the Kinneret, a truly magical place,” Gould relates to The Report before the swim. “Then there’s the excitement and joy of this event through weight of numbers and atmosphere.
You know you’re part of something special.
Last year’s event was one of my favourite moments of all time in Israel.
“One of the things I like about the swim is that it’s not actually a race,” Gould continues.
“It’s all done in the spirit of fun and unity. Parents and children, grandparents and grandchildren; it’s a very Israeli event.”
Another to take up the challenge was Italy’s ambassador, Francesco Maria Talo, who readily admitted he was heading to the Kinneret on the back of minimal preparation.
“I am going to the event in the worst possible physical condition; too much work, too little athletic preparation, but a lot of goodwill,” he reveals to The Report. “Theoretically, I am a sporty guy, but my real sport these days is rushing from one meeting to another, although this can also be quite a physical challenge.”
I ventured to suggest that the short course would seem the obvious route to take given his apparent lack of physical conditioning, even though the British ambassador – I had to get that in – would be swimming the long route. “Actually,” responds Talo, “I have also decided to take the longer route to make things more difficult. It starts at six in the morning, but I hope to arrive before sunset!” The gauntlet had been well and truly thrown down. The ambassadorial challenge – Britain versus Italy – was on.
In the evening before the big swim, the Kinneret Veterans Association held a party to celebrate the diamond anniversary of the event. It took place at Beit Gavriel, the museum and conference center that hosted the signing of the peace deal between Israel and Jordan back in 1994.
Among the swimmers the following morning were Jews, Muslims and Christians from all over Israel, as well as foreign teams. But if the organizers of this event are missing anything, it is surely that the Kinneret Swim is a golden opportunity for swimmers from around the world to take part in something that deserves to be a higher-profile event on the international amateur sporting calendar.
It was a point taken up later in the day by speakers at the prize-giving ceremony, including Uri Schaeffer from the Ministry of Sport.
The first finishers emerged from the 23-degree waters of the Kinneret before 7 a.m. A trickle of swimmers passing under the inflatable finishing line – which later deflated due to a puncture – soon became a torrent, a mass of finely and not-so-finely toned bodies in colored swimsuits. Beaming faces, fists of triumph and kisses all around, stepping out of the water and picking their way across the stony shore, a task that some found more difficult than the swim itself.
ONE ELDERLY couple from Kibbutz Maanit near Pardes Hanna tells The Report this was their 51st time swimming the course together. “We’ve been doing this since 1963; we come back every year. We started early among the first swimmers when it was still a little dark. The water was calm, the people were calm. Lots of children, lots of happiness; it was wonderful. It always is.”
As the masses arrived at the finishing point on Tzemach Beach to collect their complimentary baguette, chocolate milk, Speedo T-shirt, and all-important medal, out of the water emerged 76-year-old Yoav Levitin, accompanied by his two sons and three grandchildren.
He was completing the swim for the 53rd time.
“It’s always a delight,” smiles Levitin, “especially when you do it together with your family around you. The atmosphere is just fantastic.”
There were also plenty of people attempting the swim for the first time. “We slept here overnight in a tent to avoid the early morning journey here,” relates Topaz Steinberg from Modi’in, who swam the 1.5-kilometer course with her husband, Hagai, and sons, Tal and Adi. She was particularly proud of her older son, Tal, who had previously swum only short distances. “He found it quite difficult, but he kept going. He feels a great sense of achievement now that he’s reached the other side,” she enthused.
Rafts are placed every few hundred meters out on the water for inexperienced swimmers or anyone feeling tired and wanting to take a rest before continuing. Sea kayaks and boats also patrol the route, ready to help anyone who might get into difficulty. The rafts, in particular though, aren’t to everyone’s liking.
“It takes away something of the sporting challenge when people can stop and laze around in the sun for a while before deciding to go on,” one Kinneret swim veteran told me. “The event was originally about sporting achievement. It still is for some, but for others it’s more of a day out.”
There were few gripes about the event as a whole, although most people agreed that the rock band that burst into life on Tzemach Beach at 9 a.m. was unnecessary and seemed out of place on the tranquil shores among swimmers getting their breath back and proud family members offering their congratulations.
During the first 60 years of the Kinneret Swim that began with just a handful of enthusiasts and has now grown to be the third-biggest swimming participation event in the world, Israel has endured a series of major conflicts, but the crossing of the lake has never halted. Even when, prior to 1967, the participants began their crossing under the watchful and somewhat bemused eye of the Syrian forces on the hillside overlooking the water, there was never a danger of the Kinneret Swim being cancelled.
What about the ambassadorial challenge? Gould, after the event, admitted his frustration at arriving late and only having time to complete the shorter course, but he “loved every minute of it.”
Talo of Italy, however, did complete the longer course. “I kept zigzagging and found it hard to stay in the right direction and probably did a lot more than the 3,500 meters,” laughs the Italian ambassador. “It was a great pleasure, but the greatest pleasure is when you arrive at the other side and know you’ve made it. I did it slowly, but I did it, and I hope to do it again next year with a team of friends from Italy.”
I think Ambassador Talo took the spoils this time around, but the truth is that everyone who completed the crossing, in the true spirit of the Kinneret Swim, is a winner. And if you’re wondering why I didn’t take part, well, to tell the truth, I can’t swim!
Paul Alster is an Israel-based journalist who can be followed at