The colors are stronger now

Although Moran Samuel has lost her ability to walk, she’s quick as can be on the basketball court and in a racing boat – which she plans to prove at the upcoming Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro.

Moran Samuel in a racing boat at the World Championships in Amsterdam. (photo credit: DETLEV SAYEV)
Moran Samuel in a racing boat at the World Championships in Amsterdam.
(photo credit: DETLEV SAYEV)
‘I’ve never been depressed in my life,” Moran Samuel tells me as she lays out her unique philosophy on life. “I guess the chemicals in my brain just work really well.
“I think I might be the most optimistic person you’ll ever meet,” she continues. “If you were to gather all the other people in the world who are as optimistic as I am, you wouldn’t even be able to fill this room. I always appreciate what I have.”
After spending an hour and a half with Samuel, a physiotherapist by profession, one understands how a woman who is confined to a wheelchair could win a silver medal in the world championship for Paralympic rowing.
“Sometimes I’ll be shopping at the grocery store and people who see me in the wheelchair will want to help push me,” she says, smiling. “They don’t understand that this wheelchair is my legs. It would be like if you were standing somewhere and someone pushed you from behind. I know they’re just trying to be helpful. People don’t always understand what disabled people’s capabilities are; they don’t realize we can do anything we want to.”
Samuel, 32, was born in Karmiel healthy and determined. She discovered her first love at age nine: the basketball court. Years later, she found herself playing on one of the best women’s teams in the country.
For a while, Samuel played on the team, coached girls and studied physiotherapy at the University of Haifa.
Then one morning at age 24, she woke up in her rental apartment in the Denya neighborhood with severe back pain.
“It didn’t make any sense that I was having this pain,” Samuel says. “I was a physiotherapy student and so I knew quite a bit about anatomy. I realized right away that something really bad was happening. When it became hard to breathe, I called an ambulance. I pinched my stomach and banged on my legs, but they wouldn’t move. The only thing I cared about at that moment was staying alive. I was afraid I’d caught a fatal bacterium. Fortunately, I received excellent treatment at Rambam Medical Center. I didn’t even have to wait long in the ER because they realized how urgent my situation was.”
Seeing that something was blocking Samuel’s spinal canal, doctors decided to operate immediately. Just as she was being anesthetized for surgery, she saw her professor from the university walk in. “I told him something that both he and I have never forgotten,” Samuel recalls. “I said: ‘If I had to choose one person out of all the people I know to go through this and come out of it okay, I would choose myself,’ at which point the professor turned to the anesthesiologist and said, ‘Put her out, because I think she’s lost her sanity.’” During the surgery, the doctors opened up six vertebrae and discovered she had an aneurysm or a “ticking bomb inside my body,” as Samuel calls it. “I was probably born with this congenital defect; I got lucky since I had it in my back. Granted, I’m paralyzed and I need to get around in a wheelchair, but if I had had one in my brain or heart, I’m not sure that we would be having this conversation right now. It’s important to always look on the bright side.”
How does she do that? “I told myself that even if I never got out of this wheelchair, I’d be fine.
I have a very strong internal belief that I have a lot to offer the world – and none of these things depend on my being paralyzed or blond or wearing glasses. What matters is what’s inside.
I knew I wanted to be a therapist and I suddenly realized that I might be able to learn this profession in a way that no one else can. So I began rehab knowing that the most important thing was that I get back to school.”
The doctors told Samuel that the rehabilitation process would take between six and 12 months, but after three-and-a-half months she was ready to go home. At Beit Loewenstein rehabilitation facility, the staff knew they could find Samuel in the gym every morning lifting weights.
“I went through many difficult, frustrating moments. I felt trapped inside my own body,” she recounts. “I used to be able to run and shoot a basket, and all of a sudden I had to accept my new body. There were so many nights where as I fell asleep I would hope that this was just a nightmare, and that I’d wake up in the morning and realize I’d had the most horrible dream. Every morning for four months I would wake up with the other four women in my room – there was no privacy. I had to learn how to get up, get dressed and move from the bed to the wheelchair all on my own.
“I’m not saying that it was like a party there, but I also didn’t cry and complain about my situation or wallow in thoughts of, ‘Why me?’ During the harder moments, this question can overpower you and then it’s really hard to crawl out of the well of self-pity. So instead, I said to myself: ‘It happened, and that’s it.’” And just as she had planned, Samuel completed her degree in physiotherapy and specialized in child development.
But she did not participate in any sports herself. “This was a big loss for me,” Samuel says. “I didn’t feel like an athlete anymore; I thought of myself as being crippled. Today, I almost never use that word anymore.’’ WHAT CHANGED the picture was the reactivation of the Israeli women’s wheelchair basketball team. They were looking for suitable players, and urged Samuel to join.
“On April 24, 2009, which happened to be my birthday, I gave myself the most important present,” she says. “I drove from Haifa to Rishon Lezion, got into a special wheelchair and then moved out onto the basketball court. Within minutes I felt like I was running. It was strange, but at the same time it felt so natural. Basketball was my first love. I discovered that it is what I love doing more than anything else. Since that moment, it’s been impossible to get me off the court.”
Samuel’s superb playing caught the eye of Ariel Ottolenghi, the coach of the Beit Halohem Tel Aviv men’s team, who asked her to join his team. Samuel didn’t hesitate to take him up on the offer. When asked whether the male team members accepted her, she replied, “What do you mean? They can’t get by without me. They’ve cut down on the number of sexist jokes they post on the group forum, and they can’t get me off the court. I scored 12 points in the final game last season. They’re not letting me stay on the team just to be nice.”
The Israel Sports Association for the Disabled recognized Samuel as an athlete with tremendous potential, but since women’s wheelchair basketball was still in its infancy, they decided to try a different channel.
Limor Goldberg, the association’s director, suggested Samuel try rowing.
This was a relatively new Paralympic sport in which Samuel could progress quickly. “She drove me nuts,” Samuel recalls with a chuckle. “She would say to me, ‘You can do it, you’re strong.’ But I told her that I don’t like water, except in the shower where it’s nice and warm. At sea, I get seasick right away. So I refused straight out.”
But Goldberg, who ended up being Samuel’s life partner, kept insisting this was a wonderful opportunity for Samuel to bring home a medal.
Samuel admits today that in the end she chose rowing in order to impress Goldberg. “It was really hard at first,” she says. “You push forward, but the boat moves backwards. You can’t see where you’re going, and you have no control. It may seem crazy, but what keeps me coming back each day is the peace of mind I feel when I’m out on the water, the detachment from life. Your mind remains clear of any thoughts. Once I mastered the technique, I realized that I actually enjoy rowing.”
Slowly, Samuel’s relationship with Goldberg grew stronger and in 2011, the two decided to get married in New York. “They wouldn’t let us get married here in Israel, so we went somewhere we could,” Samuel explains.
“I don’t understand why in 2014 we’re still debating who’s allowed to marry whom. Do I tell other people how to live their lives? No, I accept everyone with open arms. The problem is that the government projects a feeling that this is not a legitimate way to live. Efforts have been made to change this, but nothing has actually changed.”
Goldberg is completely healthy and has no physical disabilities, and Samuel admits, “It was not easy for me to accept the fact that someone found me attractive. I knew that as a person I have a lot to offer, but I figured being in a wheelchair would be a bit of a turnoff. I got very lucky since I got to know Limor on a professional level first; because she works with disabled people all the time, my being in a wheelchair wasn’t a big deal to her.
She’s the last person who would help push me up a hill. Instead, she’d say something like, ‘What, do you have a problem with your arms?’ “When she’s around, she doesn’t treat me like I’m a poor crippled girl.
She helped me change my perception of myself; she views my disability as an advantage, not a disadvantage. For example, we get to cut to the front of the line at the airport, and at the theater we get the best seats.”
After winning the silver medal in the world championship in Amsterdam, Samuel’s next goal was to win a medal in the Rio de Janeiro race.
She also has a lot to say about Israeli Paralympic athletes. “I’m not one to complain, but as a Paralympic athlete, I receive X amount of money, whereas Olympic athletes in Israel receive four times that much. I train 30 hours a week – I don’t think anyone can argue that I’m not worth the investment. I have to work so hard to find financial support. I’m not making any money on the thing I spend most of my time doing. I’m currently looking for a firm or private individual to sponsor me for the upcoming Paralympics in Rio. My goal is to win the gold medal.”
In addition to fulfilling her Paralympic dream, Samuel has another dream she does not intend to give up: motherhood.
“We’re in the midst of trying to bring a child into the world. Since I’m married to a woman, we both get to participate. Limor is intricately involved in this process right now and I also plan on trying after I come back from Rio. I will not give up. I am very connected to children and I want a family. We really hope we’ll succeed.
My dream is that alongside a medal, I will also have a baby to bounce on my lap.
“Many people who experience trauma like I have say it changed them,” says Samuel. “But I can’t say that this has been true for me.
“For me, it’s like a picture that you have hanging in your hallway at home. You pass by it all the time, but never really notice it’s there. But if something makes you stop and look at it closely, you’ll notice all the details, you’ll see all the colors and shapes clearly. That’s how my life has been. The resolution and force of the colors and shapes are much stronger now.”
Translated by Hannah Hochner.