From Beijing to Birthright: S.F. gold medalist fired up about Israel

Over the past six months, Ben Wildman-Tobriner has been immersed in two very significant bodies of water.

The first was the Olympic swimming pool in Beijing, a place that drew the focus of the world during Michael Phelps’ record-breaking gold medal run in August. There, Wildman-Tobriner helped the U.S. freestyle relay team set a world record, and earned a gold medal in the process.

Four months later, Wildman-Tobriner was languidly floating in Israel’s Dead Sea.

Though he wasn’t chasing any records in that salty swimming hole, he definitely was part of a milestone: Wildman-Tobriner was there after having been selected as Birthright Israel’s symbolic 200,000th participant.

The San Francisco native, who never took advantage of a free Birthright trip to Israel when he was an undergraduate at Stanford University, was selected for the honor by Birthright CEO Gidi Mark. On Dec. 29, Wildman-Tobriner joined a cohort of fellow 20-somethings for a 10-day adventure in the Holy Land.

His itinerary mimicked that of a traditional Birthright excursion — exploring Tel Aviv, peering up at the Western Wall, hanging out with Israeli soldiers — but with a few extra responsibilities thrown in

For example, at the “Mega Event” — a massive party in Jerusalem that brings together all the Birthright participants visiting Israel at one particular time for a night of music and mingling — Wildman-Tobriner was directly in the spotlight.

The graduate of San Francisco’s Lick-Wilmerding High School introduced Israeli President Shimon Peres to the throng of nearly 4,000 visiting students, and presented philanthropists Miriam and Sheldon Adelson with a special gift in recognition of their support for the Birthright program.

“It was an honor,” said the 24-year-old Wildman-Tobriner. “I’m the name and the face of the thousands of participants. It was a thrill.”

And the highlights kept coming. On the last full day of his trip, Wildman-Tobriner visited Bet Halochem, a rehabilitation center in Tel Aviv for injured Israel Defense Forces soldiers. He assumed he’d be giving lessons to novice swimmers, but that wasn’t exactly the case.

The athlete with his Olympic gold.

“They were high-level swimmers who I could communicate with on a sophisticated level,” he said. “We had a great time and shared secrets.”

The best-kept one? “They all wanted to hear my thoughts on how to swim fast.

As part of the Birthright experience, Wildman-Tobriner also spent a significant amount of time with active IDF soldiers, who openly shared their opinions with his group as the air strikes in Gaza escalated. The air raids began just three days before his Birthright group arrived at Ben Gurion Airport.

“Without a doubt, it was the hot topic that dominated most of the country, this constant overhang of war,” Wildman-Tobriner recalled. “It was difficult because here we were, tourists on the ‘trip of a lifetime,’ and yet so close to us, there was unbelievable violence.

“We weren’t close enough to be in danger, but I’m sure my mom was happy when I came back, being the Jewish mother that she is.”

His mother, Stephanie Wildman, is a law professor at Santa Clara University; his father, Michael Tobriner, is an attorney in San Francisco

Back when Ben was young, the Wildman-Tobriner family often opted for swim meets rather than attending Saturday morning services at their synagogue, Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco.

As the symbolic 200,000th Birthright participant, Wildman-Tobriner views his task as “firing up” young adults’ connection to Judaism. And whenever possible, he will be a spokesman for Birthright, such as when he was interviewed on the Fox Business Channel (a link to the clip, with a spotlight on Wildman-Tobriner, can be found at

Wildman-Tobriner is not the first Jewish celebrity to tour Israel with Birthright. NASCAR driver Jon Denning and actress Jamie-Lynn Sigler, who played Tony Soprano’s daughter, Meadow, on “The Sopranos,” each went on a trip.

Roughly 20,000 Jewish young adults take their first organized, educational visit to Israel every year thanks to the Birthright program — and Wildman-Tobriner is hoping to inspire more to do the same.

“I saw 40 kids who did not know each other be put on a bus and come out a closely knit group,” he said. “If I can do anything to help get more kids on the trip, it will be invaluable. The impact is undeniable.”

Wildman-Tobriner plans to go JCC-hopping in the Bay Area to talk about his experience, though no specific dates have been set.

“The trip changed my life,” he said. “It is a very powerful experience regardless of how religious you are. If you’re spiritual, you can find emotion and power at some point along the trip — at the top of Masada or at the Western Wall or anywhere in between.

Wildman-Tobriner works with injured IDF soldiers in Tel Aviv

In August, Wildman-Tobriner made his Olympic debut at the National Aquatics Center, a 17,000-seat venue sitting on nearly eight acres of land in Beijing.

Because he was expected at the facility, dubbed the “Water Cube,” a mere 48 hours after the opening ceremony, Wildman-Tobriner heeded U.S. Olympic swimming coach Eddie Reese’s advice and skipped the Aug. 8 opening ceremony.

“He said ‘If you want to walk [with the U.S. Olympic team in the Parade of Nations], I’ll let you. But I’m going to ask you one question — what did you come here to do?’ It wasn’t a hard choice.”

Many athletes, after years of training and anticipation, wouldn’t miss the entry march for anything. But Wildman-Tobriner decided to watch the entire opening ceremony on a television screen in the Olympic village, alongside some other members of the U.S. team. “I could still feel the fireworks vibrate,” he recalled. 

Turns out it was a smart decision.

Swimming the third leg in the heats of the 4X100 freestyle relay preliminaries on Aug. 10, Wildman-Tobriner contributed to a world-record time of 3 minutes, 12.23 seconds with teammates Matt Grevers, Cullen Jones and Cal’s Nathan Adrian.

The previous record was 3 minutes, 12.46 seconds by a U.S. team in 2006.

“I was on autopilot,” he said. “I wasn’t thinking a whole lot and just let my instincts take over. I was just trying to embrace the moment.”

Wildman-Tobriner and fellow Birthright participants celebrate at the “Mega Event” in Jerusalem.

The next day was the 4X100 freestyle final, and Wildman-Tobriner — though he helped the United States qualify for the final — was not part of the U.S. squad that would be swimming for the gold.

Jones, Phelps, Garrett Weber-Gale and Jason Lezak teamed up to shatter their teammates’ world record with a time of 3 minutes, 8.24 seconds. They beat France and Australia to earn the gold — and under Olympic rules, the swimmers who competed in the preliminaries receive the same prize.

That meant a gold medal for Wildman-Tobriner.

“Knowing I could race among the best and hold my own is a nice feeling,” he said. “Every big meet you go to and get through is another notch on the belt.”

Wildman-Tobriner, the Pac-10 conference’s 2007 Swimmer of the Year, skyrocketed into the upper echelon of the swimming world when he won the 50-meter freestyle at the 2007 World Championships in Australia, then followed that up last year with a U.S. title in the same event. After that, he qualified for one of 22 spots on the U.S. men’s Olympic team.

Wildman-Tobriner keeps his gold medal in a special box on his bookshelf in his Cole Valley apartment. The more he stares at the coveted container, the more his Olympic experience continues to “sink in.”

“When you’re there, you’re so focused and it’s hard to appreciate what you’re involved in,” he said. “The Olympics are the pinnacle of the sport — that’s the real deal.”

And when he’s stopped in the halls of UCSF, where he’s a first-year medical student contemplating a career in orthopedics, curious students mostly want to know one thing — no, not what it feels like to be on the medal stand with gold draped around your neck.

They want to know: How did Michael Phelps do it?

“It’s amazing,” said Wildman-Tobriner, referring to Phelps’ rocket-like swims and eight gold medals in Beijing. “My only hope is that the momentum continues.

“The hardest part about Olympic sports is they’re locked into a four-year popularity cycle. Then they drop off the map quickly. Anything that Michael’s situation can do to put swimming on the radar is valuable to the sport.”

Phelps’ “situation” became a bit more precarious after a photo of him smoking marijuana from a bong appeared in a British tabloid last month, and USA Swimming (the governing body for competitive swimming) suspended him for three months. Wildman-Tobriner declined to comment on that.

He still keeps in touch with a few of the other members of the U.S. Olympic swim team, including fellow Jews Weber-Gale of Milwaukee and Lezak of Irvine.

At the 2008 Golden Goggle Awards in New York — USA Swimming’s black-tie event celebrating the accomplishments of top American swimmers — the “Jew Crew” was reunited, dressed in suits of a more formal kind.

At the request of Weber-Gale, photos were snapped of the three Jewish athletes in their tuxedos.

“It was pretty funny,” said Wildman-Tobriner. “Out of seven members total [on the freestyle relay team], three of us were Jewish. It was fun racing together and gave us something to joke about.”

As for any regrets, Wildman-Tobriner noted one: “We should have made T-shirts.”

These days, his focus is on medical school, though he’s staying in shape with occasional swims at the San Francisco Boys and Girls Club, where his sister, Becky, is the aquatics director.

He’s also in the midst of a four-year contract with Speedo, which he signed after graduating from college. As part of the agreement, Speedo makes contributions to the Boys and Girls Club of San Francisco.

As for the 2012 Summer Games in London, Wildman-Tobriner isn’t sure if he’ll be back in the pool representing the United States. But, “it’s going to be hard not to try.”