An Israeli athlete who was blinded during a 2005 operation to arrest a terrorist in Gaza claimed the gold medal in a World Paratriathlon event in Manaus, Brazil, last week. Oren Blitzblau, 38, crossed the line alongside his sporting partner, Gilad Rotem, who acts as Blitzblau’s eyes on land and water during the race.
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Blitzblau earned his first gold medal in international competition following silver and bronze medals at previous European competitions. His achievement was impressive in any conditions, let alone tropical ones in 90 percent humidity. Blitzblau completed a 750-meter swim in the Rio Negro, a tributary of the Amazon; a 20-kilometer bike ride; and a five-kilometer run – all in 1 hour, seven minutes and 51 seconds. But the achievement is even bigger than the numbers. The more one delves into the challenge in Brazil, the more one understands Blitzblau’s extraordinary strength of spirit and his unique partnership with Rotem. They have been training together for about a year, but the competition on October 11 was their first as a team.
Rotem is not allowed to pull Blitzblau forward, but has to be in good-enough shape so as not to hold his partner back. During the swim they are tethered at the leg, with Rotem directing Blitzblau from about a half-meter behind him. The dynamic becomes even more interesting when they transition from swimming to cycling. “When we get out of the water he holds my elbow,” Blitzblau explains. “The bike is at a place we arrange ahead of time; the helmet and goggles are on it, and everything is ‘on automatic.’ He simply puts me at the point we agreed on and my hands fly to the equipment. They say we do it faster than sighted people,” Blitzblau adds.
During the cycling – as opposed to swimming and running – Rotem does not navigate, but pedals together with Blitzblau on a tandem bike. This is where the abilities of the “pilot,” as the accompanying athlete is called, come into their own. “On the second transition [from cycling to running] I put the goggles and the helmet left, knowing that Gilad is there to take them. I stand exactly over the running shoes, put them on and I’m ready to go,” Blitzblau says.
The new partnership reignited Rotem’s competitive spirit. Once ranked 41st at the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii, he says that over the past two years his medical studies prevented him from training at the level he needed to reach to excel. “And so it was less interesting for me to cross the start line without reaching the maximum. Suddenly, Oren called me and standing on the start line gained new significance. For me this is a new and exciting goal. The training, competing and traveling with him is fun,” Rotem says.
Normally Blitzblau gets around with the help of a seeing-eye dog. Joining forces with Rotem allows him to realize his athletic abilities, and also makes it easier for him to get around during trips abroad, he says.
“Until now we met only for training sessions a couple of hours long, and he made me feel so comfortable that I forgot something limits him,” adds Rotem. “Only when you’re together for 24 hours a day for a few days, and in a different environment, can you understand what he goes through and appreciate his adaptation and progress.”
According to Rotem, while there are funding problems in so many sports, “you go into Beit Halohem” – referring to the sports rehabilitation centers for injured veterans – “and see that at least one thing works well in Israel.”
Blitzblau, married and the father of two, says his future as a triathlete is unclear. Last month, he was released from the Israel Defense Forces after 20 years’ service, and had planned to dedicate himself to training for the Rio Paralympics in 2016. But at Manaus he found out that the International Paralympic Committee had decided that, out of five categories of disabilities, only three for men and three for women would be included in the Paratriathlon. Consequently, there will be a blind triathlon for women, but not for men.
“That’s a very strange decision, which blocks my dream,” Blitzblau said, adding that he might switch to long-distance running. Right now, though, he is too upset and angry to contemplate it.
Nevertheless, Blitzblau is not giving up. Nearly 10 years after the fateful incident in Gaza, when he can barely remember what sunset looks like, he continues to show just how far willpower can bring a person.