Defending 1,500-meter champion Zac Ashkanasy is adamant that his age is not going to prevent him from taking home his third consecutive gold medal at the Maccabiah Games. Though the 32-year-old Australian may well be the oldest competitor running in today's 1,500-meter final, Ashkanasy - who describes himself as a "very late developer" - believes that many athletes never fulfill their potential because they give up too early. "It's one of the sad things about athletics," he says.
His path to represent both his home state of Queensland and later his country was certainly more winding than most. Though he started running competitively at the age of 10, it was only in his last year of university, at the age of 20, when he started to run in the 800-meter that he started to taste some real success.
At 24, he placed third in the 800-meter in a state championship with a time of 1:51.55 minutes, and he continued to improve. (His personal best stands at 1:49.67). Three years later, in 2001, he placed second in the 1,500-meter at the Australian national championships with a time of 3:43.94. "I'd be ecstatic if I could run that fast [in today's race]," says Ashkanasy, who will also compete in the 800-meter final tomorrow.
Blond, lanky and bespectacled, Ashkanasy grew up as part of the small Jewish community in Brisbane, where he encountered a considerable amount of anti-Semitism at school. He won his first-ever gold medal in the 1,500 at the 1997 Maccabiah, just three days after he suffered minor bruising and abrasions when he was standing on the bridge that collapsed during the competition's opening ceremony. Later that week, he placed second in the 800. He won gold for both distances at the 2001 Maccabiah.
Now a resident of Melbourne, where he trains at the AJAX Maccabi Athletics Club and works as a management consultant, Ashkanasy says his running is entirely self-motivated and self-funded. "I do more training than many professional athletes and I get no reward other than personal satisfaction," he says.
Although he represented Australia in a number of Grand Prix races around East Asia in 2001 and 2002, since then "mental fatigue," injuries - he twice fell off his bicycle - and various studies and travels have kept him away from the international circuit. Plus, he adds, Australia is not the easiest place to become a world-class athlete.
While some of his peers travel to America and participate in the U.S. College running system, Ashkanasy "wasn't good enough" to do that at the time. He envies the Europeans' "fantastic network of competitions" and the funding that athletics receives in both Europe and the U.S. But the biggest problem, he says, is not one that money can solve: "Because our summer is your winter and your winter is our summer, for us to compete in Europe, we have to train for 12 months of the year. We need to peak twice, and very few Australian athletes can do that."
For now, Ashkanasy is focused on today's race and he issues a warning to his younger competitors: "Sometimes, you get these young kids thinking they are better than they are. I say, race now, talk later."
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