Veterans: An inspired triathlete

"I kind of like being out of my comfort zone; it gives me a feeling of empowerment," Ben-Dor says of her participation in extreme endurance challenges.

Jill Ben-Dor (photo credit: DANI MACHLIS/BGU)
Jill Ben-Dor
(photo credit: DANI MACHLIS/BGU)
Jill Meyers was 18 when she got her first tour of Israel – in the backseat of her father’s sweltering Fiat, squashed between her younger half-brother and a big, hairy dog.
They journeyed from the south to northernmost Rosh Hanikra during that summer of 1978, camping out along the way.
“At the very end I said, ‘It’s a beautiful country, but I’m not coming back till there’s air conditioning in the cars.’ But I didn’t wait that long,” recalls the triathlete, who was raised in Farmingdale on New York’s Long Island.
Indeed, she was back the summer after her junior year of college to volunteer on Kibbutz Palmahim near Rishon Lezion, and loved the outdoor labor so much that she took a leave of absence from Albany State University in New York and stayed on until her lightweight summer clothing no longer sufficed.
“In December I came back and finished my senior year in one semester.
I wanted to be a kibbutznikit,” she recounts.
At that point, her father’s family had moved back to the States, but her two older sisters were living in Israel.
To prepare for her departure, she took a job at the Jewish Agency in New York City, signed up for ulpan, made valuable personal connections and joined a Youth Kibbutz Movement group bound for Kibbutz Gadot.
One Friday, on the commute back to her mother’s house in Farmingdale, she met Ram Ben-Dor from Rishon Lezion – who was traveling around the States after his IDF service and was headed to his sister on Long Island for Shabbat dinner. They began dating, even vacationing in Hawaii together.
In October 1983, Ram went back to Rishon and Jill followed later that month with her group. Less than a month later, she was ready to leave Gadot and its avocado orchards behind.
Ram asked her to join him in Rishon.
“So I went to live with Ram and went to ulpan, and I got a great job working for Tolkowsky Associates, the firm that established Athena, the first venture capital fund in Israel. It was really interesting.”
The couple married in 1985 and welcomed their first child, Guy, in October 1986 during a nurses’ strike. In the summer of 1988, the Ben-Dors moved to Mitzpe Ramon, where Ram accepted a job managing the Har Hanegev Field School and Jill worked as the school’s administrator. Their second son, Tom, was born there in 1989.
A few years later they moved slightly north to Meitar, a Beersheba suburb where they eventually built a house.
Since 1994, Jill has been working at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev; for the past eight years she has directed its donor and associate affairs department.
Today, her son Guy is a third-year geological sciences student at BGU, while Tom is completing a prep course for an engineering program there. The youngest son Dan, 20, serves in the IDF’s Oketz canine unit.
Finding her inner sportswoman
It was in Meitar that Ben-Dor, who had been an asthmatic and unathletic child, started getting into shape through walking and spinning; she then took up mountain biking and competitive road biking. She also does weight training and swimming in the town’s sports center.
Something about Meitar inspires her.
“Right outside my door there are woods and mountains and hills, and trails we can bike and run on,” she says. “It’s really close to nature.”
During a university staff trip to Haifa several years ago, she and a coworker went for a walk along the boardwalk.
Because her friend is long-legged, Ben- Dor had to run to keep up. “Since I was in super-good cardiovascular shape from biking, I felt I could run from Haifa to Tel Aviv. But I couldn’t walk down the stairs the next day,” she recounts, and to remedy that muscular deficiency, she added running to her fitness routine.
Pretty soon, friends told her about Israel’s Women’s Triathlon organized by Ra’anana resident Susie Dvoskin in memory of her daughter Tamar. With biking and running already under her belt, Ben-Dor was persuaded to get serious about swimming, slowly working her way up to Ironman competitions.
She is part of Alpha, a local training group of triathletes coached by Shmuel Frankel.
“I’m still an awful swimmer,” she confides.
“At every triathlon, I’m always the last one out of the water. But I kind of like being out of my comfort zone; it gives me a feeling of empowerment.”
Last year, while swimming in Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee) during the half-Israman, she began panicking as other contestants passed her by. However, she won the race because of her strong running skills. “Afterward, I kept thinking it was a good thing I had that panic attack since I was able to put all those bad voices away and tell myself I should be doing this – because I can.”
Ben-Dor leaves her house each morning by 5:20 to swim, bike or run, and often goes for an evening swim as well.
She ran a marathon in Amsterdam in 2013; last June she competed in an Ironman in Austria, took part in an Israman in January, finished first in her age category in the half-marathon in Tel Aviv in February, and will go with her Alpha group to an Ironman in Barcelona in October.
“Endurance events have given me perspective, a feeling of patience,” she explains.
“Long-distance races aren’t over till they’re over. It’s kind of like life, with high and low points. You know you’ll get over it, and when it’s over you’re thrilled for yourself and even more so for your friends.”
The social aspect of athletic competition is important to Ben-Dor. “Age barriers go away when you do sports together.
A 55-year-old woman like me can be really good friends with a 25-year-old guy from a very different walk of life.”
Her husband, she says, “is very supportive of my athletic endeavors despite the time and money,” and the two of them went mountain biking in Ethiopia last December with a group of friends, mostly from the South.
She is proud of her adopted hometown and sees a promising future for the Negev.
“It’s a great place and we deserve more,” she asserts. “Over the 27 years we’ve been living down here, there have been great changes and the Negev is really developing, but it shouldn’t be taking so long.”
Ben-Dor muses that one of the best things about building a life in Israel is the sense that everything she does really matters, even when the going gets rough.
“I always have the feeling that I make a difference just by living here, by doing the work I do, by having kids in the army. Life has more meaning here.”