Raising the sky

Israeli Paralympic stars Moran Samuel and Pascale Berkowitz shine for others

Moran Samuel with her son, Arad, at the Rio Paralympics in 2016 (photo credit: DETLEV SEYEB / KEREN ISAACSON)
Moran Samuel with her son, Arad, at the Rio Paralympics in 2016
“THE TWO things every wheelchair-bound person thinks of when he or she leaves the house in the morning: Will there be parking places and accessible lavatories?” says Israeli Paralympics champion Moran Samuel only half-joking as she heads for one of her frequent motivational lectures ‒ this one for elementary school teachers in Petah Tikva.
The 35-year-old medalist in adaptive single-scull rowing has been up since 5 a.m., training for two hours on Tel Aviv’s Yarkon River. Later in the day, she will continue her intense workout lifting weights in the gym.
Israel was one of the first countries in the world to have Paralympic sports and is still one of the leaders. If athletes, especially Olympic athletes, appear superhuman to the average person, men and women competing in the Paralympics are beyond that, seemingly possessing otherworldly strengths. At the age of 24, Samuel, an accomplished basketball player with a bright career ahead of her, suffered a very rare spinal stroke that left her paralyzed in 70 percent of her body. “For anyone this would be devastating, but I was not a regular person,” she relates in flawless English. “I’d been a professional athlete from the age of 15, a professional basketball player and coach, and studying for a degree in physical therapy. I found myself a completely different person. In one moment, my body was erased.” An athlete since the age of nine, Samuel had served in the Israel Air Force in a special program for Division One athletes, which enabled to her to play basketball for the national team and remain in the IAF. She also worked as a sports instructor, including with children with special needs.
You need so much patience for this. No one can teach the qualities for being a coach; it’s an attitude, you need to love it,” she says. “After [my paralysis], I gave up on everything else except for my studies, earning a master’s in physiotherapy, working with children with disabilities. I couldn’t think of going back to sports, but then basketball chose me.”
The Paralympic community was rebuilding the women’s wheelchair basketball team and looking for players.
“I had to think about it,” she recalls. “I didn’t want to deal with what I’d once had and lost. Psychologically, it was very hard to think of myself playing in a wheelchair. But from the first training session I fell in love again ‒ a parquet floor, a ball, a hoop – what else did I need? I was home!” For those who haven’t seen wheelchair bas- ketball, it’s a ferocious heart-stopping sport. The basket is as high as regular basketball, and players use specially designed light- weight chairs that can turn on the spot.
“Basketball was my whole world; as an athlete, I knew I couldn’t give up. I had an athlete’s tool box.”
Within a short time, Samuel was made captain, leading the team to two European championships, playing with the men’s Division One team and was twice chosen as one of the five best Israeli wheelchair basketball players. Samuel’s rowing career came from a different direction. The single skiff or scull requires a rower propelling the boat backward with two oars. She took up the sport at the suggestion of Limor Goldberg, a Paralympic official who’s also a rower, who thought Samuel would have a promising career in an individual sport.
“At that point, without saying anything, we understood there was something between us,” Samuel smiles. “So, I thought, ‘OK, if I sit in a boat, maybe it will earn me some points.’” And she was right. “A year later we got married in New York; two years later, I rep- resented Israel in the Paralympics in London, one second away from a bronze medal.”
She went on to earn a silver medal in 2014 and then gold in the 2015 World Rowing Championships ‒ the year she was chosen as Paralympic athlete of the year in Israel and the Paralympic athlete of the year in the World Rowing Federation.
Then came the 2016 Rio Paralympics where she won the bronze medal, the same year she and her partner had their son, whom they named, not surprisingly, Arad (bronze, in Hebrew).”I never cry, but when I earned my medallion and sat my son on my lap, that was when I did cry.” Today, in addition to her rigorous daily training for the Paralympics in rowing, she still plays basketball and works part-time as a pediatric physical therapist, helping young children with developmental problems.
“What you see from the outside does not define a person. Let the kids know in what way they are good,” Samuel advises her audience of teachers.
One of an elite cadre of Paralympic athletes who work and volunteer as “motivational” speakers in Israel and abroad , Samuel is a dynamite lecturer.
When she started telling her story publicly, she realized that “it is more than my personal story. I decided to analyze how I was able to overcome, how I was able to get back to sports again and to verbalize my personal experience so that it’s something that is universal. We all face a metaphorical wheelchair. I own my own strength,” Samuel says.
Pascale Berkowitz is another remarkable Israeli Paralympic star on the lecture circuit.
A gymnast as a child, Berkowitz lost both her legs after she slipped and was pulled under a moving train in her native France at the age of 17. As soon as she was released from the hospital, she immigrated to Israel, volunteered for the IDF and became the first female soldier in a wheelchair. The phrase “against all odds” may sound like a cliché, but applied to Berkowitz it seems nearly inadequate.
“I know that for some people, the injury can look like the end of the world,” the 50-year-old athlete says today. There are a lot of things I cannot do, but I do my best. The decision to take the accident and turn it into internal motivation gives me strength. The sky is not the limit. There is no limit.”
Berkowitz is actually the first person in the world to have taken part in three Paralympics in three different sports: Beijing in 2008 in rowing, London in 2012 in hand cycling, and Rio in 2016 in kayaking. She subsequently won a silver medal at the International Canoe Federation’s Kayak World Cup in Hungary 2017.
One of 14 women chosen to light torch- es at Israel’s 2014 Independence Day ceremony, Berkowitz manages wall climbing, mountain climbing, surfing and wheelchair dancing, filmmaking and writing. And, she’s the mother of two daughters.
Appearing on the local Channel 13 morning program in November, the photogenic Berkowitz demonstrated the poise and patience she’s achieved after years of appearing in public. Her effervescent personality shines through, even when talking about painful personal issues.
An advocate for the disabled in Israel, she volunteers for Access Israel and visits people in the hospital who have been badly injured. “I come with my daughters so people can see it’s possible to do many things in a wheelchair, to be a mother.” Both Samuel and Berkowitz earn money from their lectures, for which they are fully booked. This helps offset the high costs of competitive sports training, but private sponsors are also needed.
As members of the national Paralympic team, they receive modest stipends “but it’s not even enough to cover my nutritional sup- plements, and I’m not covered if I’m injured or sick,” Berkowitz explains.
In a year during which major highway junctions are being blocked by outraged disabled demonstrators demanding disability benefits simply be raised to minimum- wage levels, Israel’s Paralympic athletes are also in a perpetual search for adequate funding. So far, there’s been little government funding for Paralympics, but Ron Bolotin, director of the Israel Paralympic Committee and the Israel Sports Association for the Disabled in Tel Aviv, says, “We’ve lobbied for this for years, and we have now received a dramatic recognition that the Sports Ministry understands what this international competition and exposure means for the country.”
Like all other sports, Paralympics has become totally professional, says Bolotin. “Today, many more countries have entered the field and invested a great deal of money. And, although our level is extremely high, our wins have been much fewer than in the past. World-class athletes generally begin training in childhood, but most of Israel’s Paralympic competitors entered athletics only after becoming disabled in their teens or 20s. Today, the level worldwide is so high that if you don’t start to work with children at a young age, it’s very hard to reach a really high level in most of the sports,” Bolotin states. “One of our problems is that there is little public exposure or understanding of the sport,” he continues. “This is the future of the Paralympics; we haven’t reached many of the future disabled athletes. The only way is through publicity, that people will see what we are doing.”
To that end, the Culture and Sports Ministry launched an initiative four years ago to identify and promote more potential Olympic and Paralympic athletes in childhood. “In a way, the initiative is too successful because everything has become increasingly professional, which requires more resources and dedication from the athletes,” remarks Boaz Kramer, executive director of the Israel Sports Center of the Disabled. “This means that Para Olympians need to commit their entire time to that purpose, which raises a lot of questions about whether people with disabili- ties should be under this pressure.”
The Sports Center in Ramat Gan is the principal facilitator of sports programs for disabled youth; some 300 young athletes participate in these programs, which rely to a great extent on private donations.
One young member of the disabled speakers circuit is 15-year-old Amit Vigoda, who often goes abroad on speaking tours to raise money for the center. He also speaks locally to parents of disabled children to tell them about the sport. Vigoda says he fell in love with wheelchair basketball when his family lived in California. Today, he’s one of the youngest athletes on the champion Ilan Ramat Gan premier league team and commutes to practice almost daily from his home near Beersheba.
“One day, I want to be the best wheelchair basketball player in the world,” he declares.
As Samuel puts it, “The line I have been repeating since I became a wheelchair athlete is that if people always say that the sky’s the limit, then when I’m doing my sports, I’m raising the sky even higher.”