Moran Samuel: Paralympic rower, part-time basketball champ

Samuel has become a world-ranked paralympic athlete in rowing and national wheelchair basketball champion.

Moran Samuel paralympic champion 370 (photo credit: Daniel Rowing Center and Adi Adamit)
Moran Samuel paralympic champion 370
(photo credit: Daniel Rowing Center and Adi Adamit)
Anyone who’s ever gotten knocked down and stayed there might have a hard time looking Moran Samuel in the eye.
The 31-year-old rower who became a media darling last year, earning a gold medal at a regatta in Italy and then singing the Israeli national anthem a capella on the podium after race organizers weren’t prepared with a recording, suffered the ultimate setback at age 24 when a spinal stroke left her in a wheelchair.
But that didn’t prevent her from producing a decent showing in the London 2012 paralympics, continuing a professional basketball career and achieving a masters degree in her field.
If anything, her challenges only prompted Samuel to step her game up.
Now a dominant figure in the rowing community, Samuel is hungry for a medal in the 2016 Rio Olympics, and her training at the Daniel Rowing Center in Tel Aviv is a fulltime job.
Samuel reluctantly tried single skiff rowing, a strange sport where “I heard you have to row backwards” in 2010 at a friend’s persuasion.
Six months later she had a new souvenir from the sport, a bronze medal from the World Rowing Championship in Munich, Germany.
“For me, rowing is like running, and before my injury I used to run a lot as part of my aerobic training for basketball,” Samuel said. “When you get into a perfect rhythm you can clear your mind totally. Since I’ve been a in a wheelchair I didn’t have the opportunity to actually disconnect from everything, and rowing gives me that.”
What Samuel calls “meditation,” others might describe as cruel and unusual punishment.
At a time when most people haven’t finished rubbing the sleep out of their eyes, chances are Samuel has completed her first practice practice on the water and is gearing up for a weightlifting session, to be followed by another practice in the afternoon with lunched squeezed somewhere in between.
Multiply that by five or six, factor in her part-time job and basketball practice when it’s in season, and we’ve summarized a week in the life of Samuel, who says a social life becomes an unaffordable luxury.
“No social life,” she said, smiling in her blue, team-Israel unisuit she trains in. “[For] everything you choose in life, you gain something, something’s left behind...I know that Rio is my next goal, so I know that I’m going to do whatever I can until then.”
Anyone in the rowing community knows that every missed practice, every unlifted weight and every minute of training missed is a minute that a competitor is capitalizing on. In a race, the difference between a medal and heartbreak is often defined by seconds, or even fractions of them.
Samuel learned this lesson the hard way in London, where she placed fifth in the finals and just one second shy of a bronze medal. She attributes this difference to a going too hard in the semi-final the day before.
To qualify for the final Samuel needed first or second place, but with her family watching in the crowd and adrenaline soaring, she wasn’t willing to settle for second.
“It doesn’t matter if in the [semifinal] if you’re first or second, you’re gonna go to the final,” Samuel said. “It was a close fight but I won it. It felt great, but that next race I think that was the one second missing.”
While Samuel’s rowing career continues to mature, she keeps up with an old hobby of hers: professional basketball.
An athlete since the age of nine, Samuel served in the Israeli air force, enrolled in a special program for division one athletes which enabled to her to play basketball for the national team and remain in the service.
Samuel joined the national wheelchair basketball team in its infancy, with which she will compete in the upcoming Maccabiah games, and resumed school at Haifa University, on track to becoming a physical therapist.
She also plays on the Beit Halohem Tel Aviv team, which won the double championship in 2011, with Samuel personally scoring 20 points during the final game.
“Rowing is much more demanding [than basketball],” Samuel said. “and now even really really great athletes try to do another kind of sport just for fun...I think for me it’s a balance between the hard work of rowing and the fun of playing basketball.”
While Samuel balances two professional sports and trains for the Olympics, she works part time as a pediatric physical therapist, helping young children with varying levels of developmental problems.
“This is the place where I can really give something else back to other people,” Samuel said. “I know for the parents that I can be a role model, so it’s very important to me not to quit at all.”
Thanks to her routine, as well as new technology, Samuel said she maintains a sense of normalcy. Every day she drives to practice in a new car redesigned by a company for disabled drivers called Taman.
Taman’s patented system equips the otherwise ordinary Ford minivan with a robot in the back seat, which pops out at the push of the button, wraps around o pick up the wheelchair from the driver’s seat and loads it back into the trunk.
After her stroke Samuel’s life was derailed, but she managed to pick up where she left off with a vengeance.
“A good athlete knows how to learn from a loss,” Samuel said. “That’s how it is, that’s sport.”