From Tragedy to Triumph: The Beacon Lighter Who Began Her Journey Under the Wheels of a Train

In the decades since losing her legs and moving to Israel against all advice, Pascale Bercovitch has yet to meet a challenge, or climbing wall, she couldn't top.

Leora Eren Frucht
Leora Eren Frucht
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Pascale Bercovitch rock climbing.
Pascale Bercovitch rock climbing.Credit: Romi Nativ
Leora Eren Frucht
Leora Eren Frucht

Paralympic athlete Pascale Bercovitch’s path — from the railroad tracks of a Paris suburb, where she hovered between life and death after being run over by a train, to Mount Herzl, where she will light a beacon to mark Israel’s 66th Independence Day — has been a study in sheer willpower.

Bercovitch was a French teenager rushing to catch the train to high school in December, 1984, when she slipped on the ice, fell onto the tracks and, in a split second, managed to turn herself around so that the passing train crushed her legs rather than her head. For 47 excruciating minutes — the time it took until she was rescued — she resisted letting go. “I saw a white light beckoning me to be free, but decided instead to choose life,” recalls the curly-haired, blue-eyed Bercovitch, seated in her wheelchair.

The ardent Zionist refused to let her accident foil her plans to make aliyah, and six months after having both legs amputated at the thigh, she arrived alone in Israel to become the first paraplegic to volunteer in the Israel Defense Forces. She was an instructor in a program that brings foreigner volunteers to Israel for short stints in the IDF.

Today, the 46-year-old athlete lives in Tel Aviv with her two daughters, aged 4 and 12, and her partner, an Israeli-born climbing coach.

She has represented Israel at international competitions in swimming, rowing, hand-cycling and climbing.

“The word ‘self-pity’ is just not in my vocabulary. I am not a person who regrets. It never entered my head to regret even the accident, which turned out to be an incredible opportunity for me,” she says with her characteristic optimism.

“My swim coach says that for me, the glass is always half full, because from my angle — I’m only one meter tall — that’s the way it looks,” she quips.
Bercovitch says that sport helps her in everyday life. “It makes me stronger. When my daughter was little, I could pick her up, throw her in the air and catch her — even though I’m in a wheelchair.”

In addition to her athletic achievements — she came in fourth at the 2012 world climbing championship, sixth in hand-cycling at the 2012 London Paralympics and eighth in rowing at the 2008 Beijing Paralympics — the multilingual Bercovitch is an accomplished journalist, author and filmmaker whose work has taken her all over Europe and Africa.

Nowadays she spends every morning — from dawn until noon — training for the next international climbing competition in Spain and the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, where she hopes to nab a medal in hand-cycling.
Like an exquisite dancer who makes impossible moves appear effortless, Bercovitch makes the dance of life look easy.

But of course it’s not — even for her.

“Sometimes, when I have to go up stairs, it’s hard, so I call someone for help, or crawl up on my behind, but overall I feel lucky — I do what I love from morning to night.”

Bercovitch’s journey from tragedy to triumph and her dynamic personality have made her a sought-after motivational speaker, both in Israel and abroad. Soon she plans to offer workshops to help others squeeze the most out of life, just as she has.

“We can always find a reason why not to do things. I don’t always feel like getting out of bed at 4:00 or 5:00 in the morning on a hot day to go train. But I make a point of looking for a reason to say yes instead of no to things.”

That has been Bercovitch’s motto, and 30 years after her accident and subsequent move to Israel, she feels it has proven itself.

“When I first announced my plans to come to Israel, everyone, including my parents, thought I was crazy. I still had dressings on the stumps of my legs, no money, and spoke no Hebrew. My family and even the aliyah officials all tried to discourage me. They thought I’d end up struggling and being a burden on the state.”

On May 5, when Bercovitch — filmmaker, journalist, Olympic contender, motivational speaker and soon-to-be life coach — lights the beacon on behalf of the State of Israel, she will have the last, hard-earned laugh.

Bercovitch says she looks for reasons to say yes.Credit: Romi Nativ

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