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Wednesday, October 22, 2014

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Ex-Olympic athlete to swim at 2013 Maccabiah

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Ami Trauber

When Ami Trauber was a young man preparing to compete for his home country, Israel, things weren’t necessarily set up to put him in a position to succeed.

The country had only two 50-metre Olympic-sized swimming pools, one in Haifa, the other in Tel Aviv. They were so busy he had to cut a zigzag course to avoid all the recreational swimmers in the pool.

As if that wasn’t difficult enough, because of the weather, the pools were shut down in October, marking an end to his training season. It’s doubtful other swim competitors preparing for the 1960 Rome Olympics faced such a limitation.

Then there were the times he and fellow members of the Israeli Olympic team practised in a 15-metre pool at their home training site in Gan Hadassah when the other pools weren’t available. What else could they do? There certainly wasn’t money to send them abroad to train.

Of course all that took place in the late 1950s, when Israel was a brand new country with not a lot of spare cash to throw around.

A lot has changed since then.

Israel now has more than just two Olympic-sized swimming pools, and Trauber is no longer a svelte teenager swimming at the highest level. Today, he’s a svelte 73-year-old who will compete for Canada at next summer’s Maccabiah Games in Israel.

Swimming for Canada against Israelis – perhaps including some people he knew back in his salad days – is stirring mixed emotions, he said. Trauber remains an Israeli citizen, but he’s eligible to swim for Canada as a Canadian resident.

Given his history, he’s managed to wrest a couple of concessions from Maccabi Canada president Tom Bacher. He’s been given the green light to wear an Israeli flag pin in his Canadian hat, and “if I win, on the podium I will carry both flags,” he said.

As a former Olympian, there’s a pretty good chance he will win.

Back in 1960 at the Rome Olympics, he finished 25th in the 100-metre freestyle, breaking Israeli records in doing so. He was runner-up as Israeli athlete of the year in 1959 and 1960 – a period in which he held the national records in the 100-, 200-, 400-, 800-, 1,000- and 1,500-metre freestyle races.

“I was the first swimmer in Israel to break the one-minute mark in the 100-metre freestyle,” he said. “In Israel, that was the biggest thing.”

After his experience in Rome, he attended university in the United States on an athletic scholarship and continued to train. But when that was over, he gave up the sport cold turkey. He splashed around like anyone else enjoying a swim, but for nearly 50 years, he did not race competitively.

That all changed in August 2009, when he and his wife of 38 years, Marsha, spent a holiday in Rome. She suggested they have a look the old Olympic pool, a visit that stirred Trauber’s competitive juices.

A year later, when they were visiting Israel, he reconnected with swimming friends and was invited to swim with his Rome teammates in an exhibition against four Israeli athletes who had competed at the Beijing Olympics.

Trauber surprised himself by winning the Israeli Masters championship in the 50-metre freestyle. It looked like he still had the old magic.

“It triggered something,” Trauber said. “Maybe I should go back to swimming.”

Back in Canada, he contacted Bacher, who encouraged him to compete for Canada in the masters division at the Maccabiah Games.

He began to put in the work that is necessary to compete at a high level. He began swimming with the North York Gators, a local club. He was in the pool three times a week for an hour or more, plus in the gym twice a week for 3-1/2 hours of dry-land training.

He dropped 24 pounds from his 208-pound frame and felt himself getting stronger and more fit.

Most importantly, he said, he felt he still possessed the mental energy and focus he would need to properly prepare for competition and vie for a medal.

As he got better, it occurred to him he could become one of the top swimmers in his age group in all of Ontario.

He set out to prove it. At a recent swim meet sanctioned by Master Swimming Ontario, Trauber proved to himself and pretty much everyone else that he is a force to be reckoned with on the local swim scene. Competing in the 69-74 age group, he finished first in the 50-metre freestyle, as well as the 100-metre freestyle, the 200-metre freestyle and the 400-metre freestyle.

With those wins under his belt, he’s back training for the Ontario Championships, to be held in March in London.

If history is any indication, don’t count him out of the medals just yet.

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