American team goes for gold

new york | Of the contingent of American Jewish swimmers hoping to make a splash at the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing, one is already in the spotlight.

The cover of Time magazine’s Olympics preview touts “Dara Torres and 99 More Athletes To Watch.”

Not only is Torres a nine-time Olympic medalist — including four gold medals — but she’s also a member of the Jewish International Sports Hall of Fame.

Despite having a 2-year-old daughter, the Los Angeles native, who now works out in southern Florida, qualified in the 50- and 100-meter freestyle, though she will compete only in the former in Beijing. This will be her fifth Summer Games.

Torres, 41, established an American record at the trials in the 50-meter freestyle with a time of 24.25 in the final. It broke her own mark, which she had earlier set in the semifinals.

“That she’s doing her best times is phenomenal,” says Jason Lezak, another Jewish swimmer on the U.S. squad. “She’s pretty inspiring to all the athletes out there.”

Her success at an advanced age for athletes has brought suspicions of doping, but Torres has passed every drug test.

“I’ve gone beyond the call of duty to prove I’m clean, but you are guilty until proven innocent in this day and age, so what else can I do?” she told Time. “It’s a real bummer.”

Torres and three other swimmers are among a group of no fewer than seven American Jewish athletes headed to China. They are a mix of veterans and newcomers, all with a realistic chance of acquiring medals at the Games, which begin with the opening ceremony Aug. 8.

Ben Wildman-Tobriner of San Francisco, Garrett Weber-Gale and Lezak are members of the U.S. men’s swimming team. They will be competing as individuals and are also expected to make up three-fourths of the 4×100-meter freestyle relay team. Rami Zur, who was born in Berkeley and grew up in Israel, will be competing for the second time with Team USA in the 500-meter sprint kayak event (he also competed for Israel in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney).

Deena Kastor, 35, is another Jewish Californian bound for Beijing. A two-time Olympian, the resident of Agoura Hills (Los Angeles County) holds the American records in the marathon and half-marathon. In April, Kastor won the U.S. Olympic trials in Boston with a time of 2:29:35.

Her bronze medal in Athens was the first medal for an American marathoner in two decades.

Another Jewish American who won a bronze in Athens was fencer Sara Jacobson. The Dunwoody, Ga., resident brings a No. 1 world ranking in sabre to China. Her sister Emily was on the ’04 Olympics fencing team; her father, David, was a member of the ’74 national squad.

Jacobson, 25, who attends Yale University, is a two-time winner of the U.S. women’s sabre championship.

In men’s swimming, Lezak is competing in his third Olympics and has garnered four medals on relay teams, including a gold in the 4×100 medley in ’04. At 32, he is the oldest male to qualify for an Olympic swim team.

“That’s an accomplishment in itself,” says Lezak, who lives in Irvine.

At the recent U.S. Olympic trials in Omaha, Neb., the 6-foot-4, 215-pounder broke the American record in the 100-meter freestyle with a semifinal time of 47.58, setting himself up as the probable anchor on that relay team.

“Winning medals in the relays is such an amazing feeling, being a part of a team,” Lezak says.

In part, it was his disappointment as an individual competitor in Athens that spurred Lezak to keep his Olympic dreams. He failed to qualify for the finals in the 100-meter freestyle, though Lezak says he had a “great opportunity” to win an individual medal.

“I took the preliminaries too lightly,” he admits. “I was thinking about how many races I had to swim and I saved too much energy.

“I learned a horrible lesson, but it kind of got me going another four years. I kind of felt like I had unfinished business.”

Now Lezak, who will be competing in relays and in the 100-meter race, wants to mount the podium by himself.

“I’m a team-type player,” he says, “but to do something on your own feels pretty good. I have a lot to prove to myself. I know I’m capable, I just haven’t done it yet.”

He’ll have plenty of competition from Weber-Gale, of Milwaukee, and Wildman-Tobriner. Weber-Gale, 22, edged Lezak in the 100-meter finals in the trials.

Weber-Gale, who won the World Championships in 2005 and 2007, will be making his Olympics debut after narrowly missing a spot four years ago. He expects to compete in the 50- and 100-meter freestyle and on the 4×100 freestyle and medley teams.

The University of Texas All-American predicts an outstanding Olympics for the U.S. squad.

“I think this is the best Olympic swim team ever assembled,” Weber-Gale told the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle. “There are several events where we could get multiple medals, and we could win all three relays.”

Jews in the Olympics