Field Work: Courting Success

Israel's tennis team is going for gold in next month's Special Olympics Summer Games in Athens.

Elad Gevandschnaider_521 (photo credit: ITC)
Elad Gevandschnaider_521
(photo credit: ITC)
To say that the odds have always been stacked against Elad Gevandschnaider and Tamir Segal is an understatement.
However, what might seem to an outsider as an insurmountable obstacle is no more than a daily task for these two.
Next month their enormous efforts will receive the ultimate recognition when they represent Israel at the Special Olympics to be held in Athens, proving their doubters wrong once and for all.
The World Summer Games in Athens, which get under way on June 25, will draw 7,000 intellectually disabled athletes from more than 170 countries around the world, with the Special Olympics organization – established in 1968 – providing year-round training and competitions to more than 3.4 million children and adults across the globe.
The World Games are held every two years and Gevandschnaider and Segal have no intention of settling for anything less than a place on the podium.
“I want to come back with a gold medal,” said 22-yearold Gevandschnaider, who was born with Down syndrome and trains at the Beersheba tennis center, one of 14 complexes across the country belonging to the Israel Tennis Center, where the intellectually disabled are given free coaching as well as training equipment and other support.
“I will do everything to win. I want to be a champion.”
Gevandschnaider, who volunteers with the IDF, won a silver medal at the European Championships in Poland earlier this year and Shaya Azar, director of the Israel Tennis Center in Ashkelon and coordinator of Special Olympics tennis, expects him to record a topthree finish in Athens as well.
Azar was the person in charge of picking the four-man team for the Summer Games, which also includes Muhammad Kunbar and Jafar Tawil, from around 250 players who train in the ITC’s centers.
“I hold competitions in the different centers throughout the year and that way I’m exposed to all the players and the ones who show real progress are invited to a training camp,” Azar said. “In the training camp I can see which players are capable of taking part in events abroad.
“I had a player I hoped to take abroad, but she couldn’t handle being away from home in the training camp and I had to replace her with another player.
“When you spend 24 hours a day with a player over several days in a training camp you recognize who will be able to handle a trip abroad and who won’t.
“All these players have very special needs. A lot of the players are also physically disabled and coaching them is far from simple.
While with a regular athlete you tell him to do something and he does it straightaway, with these players you need to repeat things and be persistent.”
The Special Olympics events are arranged in a way that ensures a balanced competition, with athletes split into groups of eight according to their level of play.
Medals are awarded to the winners of each group, but Azar concedes that sometimes victories take a back seat to mere participation when it comes to the Special Olympics.
“Playing gives them confidence and happiness.
They feel that they are being given love for something they have achieved,” Azar said.
“They need this warmth and support. This is another place in which they can tell themselves that they are no different from anybody else.
“It is first and foremost important that they are participating in the events, but it is also very important to me that they achieve success.
“I think it is also important to them. I’m not measured by the results they record, but by the number of disabled people I attract to tennis.
“But once a player is under my guidance, I do demand of them to win medals.”
Kunbar and Tawil, who both hail from Beit Safafa in Jerusalem, are set to become the first Arabs to represent Israel at the Special Olympics, but politics are far from the minds of everyone involved.
“I’m good friends with Muhammad and Jafar and love them and love joking with them,” said Segal, who as the veteran of the team, also helps Azar while on trips abroad.
Kunbar is delighted to simply have the chance to play tennis.
“Tamir and Elad are good friends and I enjoy playing tennis with them,” he said. “I hope to be a top player one day.”
Segal, who lives in a hostel in Kiryat Shmona, is the most experienced player on the tennis team and the only one to have taken part in the World Summer Games before. The 34-year-old trains at the Kiryat Shmona center every day in the hope of improving on the bronze medal he won at the Special Olympics in 2007.
The emergence of Kunbar relegated Segal to second place in the Israel Special Olympics tennis championships held in Jerusalem two weeks ago, but he welcomes the new competition and is determined to continue the hard work that has already seen him overcome so much in his life on the way to his ultimate goal – an Olympic gold medal.
“It was tough playing Kunbar, but I’m pleased with where I finished,” said Segal, who also has a gold medal from the 2006 European Championship in Berlin on his resume. “I’m training really hard for the Olympics and it makes me feel really good that I have the opportunity to represent Israel at such an event. I won the bronze medal last time, but now my target is to win the gold.”