Late Bloomers Burst Into Flower at the Maccabiah

In the pool, on the pitch, in the ice rink (!) and elsewhere, older athletes, including a 79-year-old swimmer, are out there going for gold.

American basketball champ Lebron James started throwing hoops when he was just a baby. Serena Williams was three when she played her first tennis match. 

Sometimes it seems as though the path to competitive sports starts in diapers, ends by 30 and includes little else in between.

But for a group of athletes participating in this year’s international Maccabiah Games, age is no barrier to competition. Meet four late-bloomers who prove that it’s never too late to go for your dream and maybe even pick a medal up along the way.

Pursuing a 60-year-old ambition

Ivan Schlapobersky was 19 when he was forced to abort his dream. A student of architecture at the University of Johannesburg, Schlapobersky had flunked his first year and was repeating all his courses when his professor called him in for a talk.

“He told me point blank: ‘Flunk one more subject and you’re out of here,’” recalls Schlapobersky.

It was sink or swim for Schlapobersky – literally. His marks were sinking because he was swimming five hours a day, every day, at the university pool. Schlapobersky was already the South African swimming champion in the breaststroke and he was about to head off to compete in the 1953 Maccabiah Games.

“The professor gave me an ultimatum: It’s either architecture or swimming. You can’t do both.”

For Schlapobersky’s parents – who were paying his tuition – the decision was a no-brainer. “Like typical Jewish parents they concluded that you can’t make a living swimming,” he sighs. And so, just days before the delegation was set to leave for Israel, a heavy-hearted Schlapobersky was forced to withdraw from the Maccabiah.

Now, 60 years later, Schlapobersky is about to dust off that old dream. On the cusp of 80, the former swimming champion will represent South Africa at the 2013 Maccabiah Games, where he hopes to capture a medal in the 50-meter and 100-meter Masters races.

“I always resented being deprived of the opportunity to compete in the Games,” he says.

“When I dropped out at the last minute in 1953, not only the Maccabiah officials but the whole South African swimming community was furious at me. A year later, I wanted to compete in the Commonwealth Games, but I was left out of the team. I felt they were punishing me. I was shattered.

“Never mind, we’ll train you for the 1956 Olympic Games,” his swim coach told him and in a perverse attempt to console him, added: You’ll never be an architect – take it from me.

Schlapobersky was so dejected about being left off the team that he gave up swimming for decades.

“From my twenties to my forties, I did no sports at all,” he recalls. He did, however, show his architecture professor and swimming coach a thing or two, by graduating architecture with distinction, getting a Fulbright scholarship and becoming a successful commercial architect. At 80, he is still an active partner in his own Johannesburg architectural firm.

Schlapobersky began doing Masters swimming again in his forties, but had to give it up when he was diagnosed with osteoporosis, and advised to do weight exercises in the gym instead. When the osteoporosis subsided he resumed swimming for a little while. But when he made the decision last year, at 79, to try out for the Maccabiah it had been 15 years since he’d been in a pool. “Fortunately, I had been training in a gym so I’m in pretty good shape,” he says.

Now, in addition to working out with a personal trainer twice a week, he swims 1.5 kilometers four times a week.

“I like challenges,” says the octogenarian, whose age seems like a typographical error in the biography of a man who, in addition to working full time, has children aged 10 and 13 (from a second marriage), and is looking ahead to competing in the world swimming championship in Montreal later this year.

“I should have pursued my dream, but I didn’t have the courage to do it then,” says Schlapobersky. “In hindsight I should have told that professor to go jump…” his voice trails off, until he remembers that soon he will be the one jumping…into the pool in front of a stadium full of spectators.

Maccabiah as family affair

If your son and granddaughter were competing in the same international sports competition, you’d probably want to be in the stands, cheering them on. So it’s not surprising that Pat Dee, a retired educator from Manchester, will be at the 19th Maccabiah Games where her son, Charles Glaskie, and granddaughter Ruby Glaskie, will be competing. But 65-year-old Dee is not satisfied with being a mere spectator. She, too, will be vying for a medal – in golf.

“Once it was clear that my son and granddaugnter were going to be in the Games, they said to me: You’ve got to go too,” recalls Dee, whose impressive golf handicap in Britain was enough to enable her to qualify. “It’s really very exciting to be three generations competing in the same games.”

The first in the family to join the British delegation was 17-year-old Ruby Glaskie, who will strut her stuff in under-18 netball competition. That started a domino effect that brought one family member after another into the Games: First it was Ruby’s 18-year- old cousin, Ella Dennison, also a netball contender, then her dad, 45-year-old Charles Glaskie, who will be making his debut on the British football team, and finally grandma Pat, who is hoping to putt her way to a medal.

Of the four contenders, it is probably Charles who has had to overcome the greatest odds.

A man of steely determination, in every sense of the word, he will be heading to the pitch with a metal plate inserted in his leg.

“Five years ago, while making a lunging tackle during a recreational game (“which accomplished absolutely nothing,” he wryly admits) he snapped his tibia bone. “I didn’t think I’d ever play again,” recalls the corporate lawyer from Manchester. But 18 months and two operations later, he was back on the pitch – with the help of the metal plate, screwed into place in his leg.

Once his daughter Ruby made the British Maccabiah contingent, “it definitely gave me an additional incentive to apply myself,” says Glaskie, who passed three tryouts to make the team. “Now for a short part of my life I’ll feel like a professional athlete, which is not a given for someone who’s been a lawyer for the last 20 years.”

When he is not lunging for the ball, Glaskie keeps busy in the mergers and acquisition department of a corporate law firm in Manchester. “I’m deliriously excited about it,” admits the father of four, who has played football all his life though, he acknowledges, “not at a very high level.”

But he has been training intensely for the matches and says, “What I lack in technical ability I make up for in fitness.”

Whatever the outcome for Glaskie, it’s been worth it. “Every little boy dreams of playing football for his country, especially in Britain,” he says. “This really is the fulfillment of a boyhood dream.”

Friday the rabbi donned skates

John Linder is a man who is used to reinventing himself. The Buffalo, New York native started off working in his family’s scrap-metal business, then became a labor organizer, before really throwing his colleagues for a loop by enrolling in rabbinical school at age 41. Still, members of Temple Solel, a Reform congregation in Phoenix, Arizona were nevertheless taken aback to learn that their 56-year-old rabbi would be leaving them for several weeks this summer to compete on an ice rink… in Israel.

“They had no idea I was a hockey player,” says Linder, a diehard Buffalo Sabres fan. “They really like the fact that their rabbi will represent the U.S. hockey team in the Maccabiah,” he says. At least one member of the congregation, Linder’s wife, Nancy, thought the idea was “a little meshugana ,” he admits, but she too has been supportive.

Linder hadn’t skated in 15 years – “not since I entered rabbinical school at Hebrew Union College” – but in his youth, he was an avid player. When a friend in Chicago who recently made the U.S. Maccabiah hockey team told Linder they were still looking for a defenseman, the rabbi decided to try out. “I had three months to ramp it up,” he notes.

Linder made the cut, much to the delight of fellow team members “who joke that putting a rabbi on the team can only help them” rally divine forces. “I can’t make any promises there,” he is quick to add. “I hope to contribute to my team on my own merits.”

He’s at the local rink at 5:30 A.M., three days a week, and works out with a trainer another three days at the Jewish community center gym. Noting that major league hockey is not exactly brimming with Jewish players, Linder says he marvels “at the sound of his coach calling out the names of team members: Cohen and Segal, Goldstein and Weiner. ‘You’ve got to be kidding,’ I still chuckle to myself.”

He adds: “To be playing competitive hockey at 56 does feel like you’re reclaiming a slice of your youth, although my body does remind me frequently that I’m not.”

A serial adventurer hits the pool 

Australian Rozanne Green was not much of an athlete in her youth. “I was overweight and not particularly good at sports,” admits the Sydney resident, who only learned to swim the crawl in her forties. Which makes it all the more remarkable that Green, 54, will be participating in the women’s freestyle Masters swim competition at the Maccabiah. But then nothing about Green’s path to competitive sports is straightforward.

Many of the older men in the Games – including Schlapobersky, Glaskie and Linder – had a single sport to which they were devoted in their youth and then abandoned for years, or even decades, before picking it up again not quite where they left off.

Green, who works in Internet technology in an international insurance firm in Sydney, does not share that linear, if interrupted, path. Hers has been a colorful, zigzagging journey that has brought her from kayaking in Sydney Harbor to climbing Kilimanjaro, and included, along the way, guiding blind friends in open water swims.

“I am adventurous,” acknowledges Green, somewhat understatedly – “and a bit competitive,” adds the divorced mother of two.

Green’s first foray into sports was in her twenties when, with her brother’s encouragement, she joined him in a half-marathon. “I wasn’t very good, but I enjoyed it and began running regularly.”After volunteering at a sports club for disabled people, she also began running with blind athletes. Six years ago, her hamstring was detached in a water-skiing accident, putting an abrupt end to her running days – but not to her adventures in sports.

In 2010, Green led two blind friends to the base camp of Mt. Everest, in the wake of a successful ascent several years earlier, in which she guided them to Africa’s highest peak, Kilimanjaro.

The South African native says her real passion is kayaking, which she does on a surf ski (not a kayak) in Sydney Harbor. “It helps build endurance.”

A decade ago, she did her first ocean swim, near her home at Sydney’s Bondi Beach. “I swam 2.5 kilometers doing the breaststroke because I didn’t know how to swim any other way. I did it very, very slowly, but I was surprised at how beautiful it was,” says Green, who has since done numerous open-water swims as well as guided blind people in ocean swims. “I yell out to them: ‘Left, right, straight ahead.’ It’s quite the scene.”

Doing the breaststroke in rough open waters got to be precarious so Green, who doesn’t like indoor sports, nevertheless decided take swimming lessons in a pool and, in her forties, learned to do the crawl.

In the 2009 Maccabiah, the Australian Masters team found itself without women competitors and asked her to join the pool competition. “That’s when I learned to dive and do tumble turns,” she says.

Family complications prevented her from participating in the 2009 games, but now – although she’s just in her first year of competitive pool swimming – she’s ready to dive into the Masters races for in the 50-54 age group.

“I get up at 5 to go to the pool and I’m at the office by 7:30 or 8,” says Green, adding that being an older athlete has certain advantages. “When the kids were young, it was hard to find time to train. I would take them to their soccer and netball practices, and while waiting for them, run around the field.”

Whether or not Green emerges triumphant in her matches, she will have another challenge when she returns home. She is being laid off from her job, but she doesn’t sound too concerned. “I like challenges. Competitive sport teaches you that if you’re determined you can do anything.” And watching her blind friends compete has taught her something else: “There’s always someone more inspiring than you.” 

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