Rarely without a paddle: Kayaker from Berkeley primed for his third Olympics

Whatever you do, don’t ask kayaker Rami Zur if he rows.

A two-time Olympian and the top finisher at this year’s Pan American Canoe/Kayak Championships in Montreal, Zur doesn’t row — he paddles.

And yes, there is a difference.

“Rowing is what [the crew teams] do at Harvard and Yale,” says Zur, 31, a Berkeley native who was raised in Israel. Kayakers “use more core, more upper body. We go forward — one paddle, two blades.”

Sounds simple enough, except that Zur has to squeeze his 5-foot-9, 165-pound body into a narrow, 17-foot-long kayak and sprint like mad — with his arms, not his legs. Still, that has never hindered the self-described “naturally born sprinter,” who will put those talents to the test at the Olympics.

He’ll be competing in the one-man 500-meter sprint kayak event at the Shunyi Rowing-Canoeing Park near the Chaobai River some 25 miles outside Beijing.

“I want to go there and come back with some hardware,” Zur says in a phone interview from training camp in Hungary. “It’s my third Olympics, and I’m just trying to do everything right, stay focused and train hard.”

Considered a top contender to win a medal, Zur will represent the United States at the Games for a second time, having previously competed on the U.S. team in Athens in 2004. Zur was a member of the Israeli team at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney.

In Athens four years ago, Zur missed his chance to race in the one-man 500-meter finals by less than one-tenth of a second, finishing fourth in the semifinals. He competed in a second event, the two-man 1,000-meter sprint, but he and his boatmate were taken out in the semifinals.

He had similar results in 2000 in Australia, when he was paired with Roei Yellin for the two-man 500 meters and the two-man 1,000 meters. The Israeli duo made it to the semifinals in both classes before being eliminated.

Soon after, the Olympic Committee of Israel cut back his funding, prompting his move to the United States.

Downplaying the sendoff he got from the Olympic Committee, Zur says his decision to compete as a member of the U.S. team again in 2008 was strongly based on his ties to America.

“I train here, I live here, and I have family and friends here,” the Costa Mesa resident says. “I feel 100 percent a part of U.S. culture and society.”

As for any hard feelings in the Israeli camp, Zur says that the team was supportive about his choice.

“There was no problem with the people from Israel, including the Olympic committee. They understood, and said, ‘Good luck, we would do the same if we had the chance.'”

Zur was born in Berkeley in 1977 to a Hawaiian father and a Jewish mother. Four weeks later, her deteriorating health led her to give the infant up for adoption. She told her brother to deliver the baby to a kibbutz in Israel to ensure he would be raised Jewish.

Located near the Sea of Galilee, the kibbutz, Degania Alef, offered the young boy a close-knit community of Jewish families, including his adoptive parents, David and Mira Zur. The location also nurtured his love of being on the water.

Boat rides on Lake Kinneret with his father David, a competitive sailor, led to solo excursions in a kayak, a floating symbol of freedom that sparked Zur’s interest at an early age. With sailing, Dad was in charge; with kayaking, Zur had control.

“Kayaking was the first sport where I could go wherever I wanted to,” he says. “I love that feeling — being on a big mass of water and feeling free to do whatever you want.”

He attempted other sports, namely track and field and gymnastics, but discovered he performed best at flatwater sprint races. He started competing in sprint kayak races in Israel and captured the Israeli national championship at age 16.

In the midst of Zur’s success, his family left the kibbutz and settled in Zikhron Yaakov, a small town outside of Haifa known for its sprawling vineyards. He briefly trained on a nearby fishpond, but it was too small. So with the support of his parents and his adoptive sister, Shimrit, he moved on his own to another kibbutz near the Sea of Galilee, Degania Bet, to train and finish high school.

Zur served his mandatory three years in the Israel Defense Forces as a pharmaceutical technician, which afforded him the time to paddle, train and travel.

“I couldn’t be an athlete and be in the combat unit,” he says. “It was hard for me to give that up. My father and grandfather were soldiers — it’s what you want to do when you’re young.

“But my friend said, ‘Rami, we have a lot of soldiers, but we don’t have a lot of Olympic kayakers,'” Zur continues. “I contribute in a different way. If I can get [Israel’s] spirits up by representing my friends and family, this is what I will do.”

When the Israeli Olympic Committee cut back on funding for his training following the 2000 Olympics, Zur’s kayaking future was up in the air. Left to fend for himself, he left Israel for the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista (San Diego County), where he was able to live for free. Around that same time, he also met his birth mother, who has since died.

“It was closure for me,” Zur said in a recent interview with NBC. “And I think it was closure for her too. I’m very glad I got the chance to meet her.”

Meanwhile, the accolades continued to pile up for Zur. He enjoyed a top finish in the one-man 500-meter event at the 2002 International Canoe Federation World Cup in Germany, followed by fourth place at the 2003 IFC Flatwater World Championships in Gainesville, Ga. One year later, he was impressive at the U.S. Olympic Trials on Lake Merritt in Oakland, taking home first place in the one-man 500 meters and 1,000 meters.

A force in the sprint-kayaking world, Zur seemed ready to take the next step up coming off the 2004 Olympics — that is, until he sustained a severe spinal fracture after jumping headfirst into the shallow end of a swimming pool.

When doctors talked of possible paralysis from the neck down, a shocked Zur underwent surgery and was forced into a three-month retirement. Many figured his competitive kayaking days were over.

But he got physical therapy at the Newport Beach Aquatic Center, and sped up his healing process by paddling in the waves around Hawaii.

It was during this rehabilitation that he discovered he loved ocean paddling as well as flatwater kayaking. Depending on how he does in Beijing, he might transition to ocean racing, where the waves and swells make each course as unique as it is unpredictable.

“It’s a new challenge and my way of staying in sprint kayaking,” Zur says. “But we’ll see what happens in the Games. Maybe I’ll stick around. I’m 31 years old and I’ve been able to do what I love for all these years. I really can’t complain.”

Jews in the Olympics