Israeli Special Olympics contingent competes in Tiburon race

Compared to the icy currents of San Francisco Bay, the calming waters of the Sea of Galilee Mati Oren swam in for most of his life are like a bathtub.

But though the Bay water may be cold, no one is going to fire a Katyusha rocket at you while you’re swimming in it.

Oren was one of nine Israeli special Olympic athletes in San Francisco last week to compete in the RCP Tiburon Mile, an open-water endurance race that attracts some of the world’s top swimmers. But no one may have come farther than the Israelis — in more ways than the literal.

When Oren’s teammate, Yuval Hirsh, meets people for the first time, they often shake their heads when he tells him he’s a Special Olympics athlete. Perhaps they think he should look a little more “special.”

“People think we’re cripples. They think we all have Down syndrome,” said Hirsch, a husky 20-year-old who does not have Down syndrome (you could describe his mental handicap as “extremely mild.”). “They don’t think people like me can participate and work so hard.”

Hirsch lives on his own in the Carmel Mountains, volunteers for the local Civil Guard, and will be starting a job on a sheep farm next month.

The swimmers, whose trip to the Bay Area was sponsored by Special Olympics Northern California, are in the pool or in open water four or more times a week — but, considering they hail from Israel, even training for a swim meet becomes something of an adventure. Many pools in the north were drained for the duration of the war. So Oren had to hop a bus, swim in a facility 125 miles away from his home on Kibbutz Ginnegar and then take the bus back home. A rocket even hit swimmer Guy Wartikowsky’s house.

Wartikowsky, however, isn’t thinking of that now. The 21-year-old is tall and svelte with long, dangling arms, and looks the part of a competitive swimmer. He doesn’t speak much English, but he manages to say that his favorite part of San Francisco is Lombard Street.

“I’m very happy when I swim. It’s not easy or hard — I just swim,” he says with a smile.

The RCP Tiburon Mile is not unlike the Boston Marathon — the elite tier of professionals is distinct from the everyday swimmers, but everyone involved must meet a minimum standard for the race, which is a major fundraiser for Special Olympics Northern California.

Special Olympics athletes compete in skill levels relative to their abilities; a swimmer such as Wartikowsky would be near the top. Oren won four gold medals in his division, and set a Special Olympics record in the 400-meter individual medley in the 2003 games in Ireland. And, contrary to the notion that everyone in Special Olympics is treated as a winner, swimmers who cut a turn too tightly or violate the arcane rules regarding specific strokes are disqualified.

With Olympic gold medal-winning swimmers such as Rowdy Gaines and John Naber competing in the mile swim, none of the Israelis — or their three American Special Olympics counterparts — expected to stand atop the podium at day’s end. Then again, they didn’t anticipate losing, either.

Vicki Oren, Mati’s mother and a team coach, said several of her swimmers had the talent to finish in the upper third of the 800-swimmer field. And while that didn’t quite happen, every one of the Israelis finished the race in the allotted time.

“I have been swimming all of my life,” says 23-year-old Mati Oren.

“I feel good when I swim and swimming is good for me.”

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.