Olympics Profile Proud to Run for His Adopted Country

Donald Sanford married an Israeli and is eager to win for his new home.

Tal Ben Ezra
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Tal Ben Ezra

Donald Sanford, the 400-meter runner who was admitted to the Israeli delegation to the Olympics last week, was the last to know he was heading to London.

His wife, who received the cherished phone call from the Olympic Committee of Israel on Thursday, told Haaretz that Sanford was on a train in France when she got the good news and that he could not be reached.

Sanford shouted for joy and cried when he heard he'd be going to London, he says. He's been dreaming about this moment for years, ever since he started running, he says, adding that he's still waiting for someone to pinch him.

Sanford says he called his mother when he got the news, noting that she was his first coach.

Sanford, 25, was born and raised in Inglewood, California, to an especially athletic family. His father, who died a number of years ago, played college basketball; his older brother was a semipro football player; his sister a basketball player; and his mother a sprinter.

Sanford's mother put him on the track for the first time at age 10. While Sanford was always attracted to the 400-meter, he was too slow, so he ran 800 meters and other long distances, he recalls. Finally, though, he says he decided to work harder to run the event he wanted, and he got the opportunity at Arizona State University.

It was at Central Arizona College, where Sanford studied before attending Arizona state, that Sanford met his current wife, Danielle Dekel, in 2005. Dekel, who is from Kibbutz Ein Shemer, was playing basketball at Central Arizona College, and the two took a few courses together. They weren't close at first, Sanford recalls, but after Dekel needed some help, they became good friends and Sanford started attending her games. The couple married in 2008 and moved to Ein Shemer. They had their first baby girl, Amy, five months ago.

The American athlete did not receive international recognition of his new status as an Israeli so quickly. After a series of struggles, the International Association of Athletics Federation approved Sanford to represent Israel in March. He says he loves the country, admires the fact that people here always put family first, and appreciates the pride they have in the state. While it gets hot too often and the roads are too crowded, Sanford says it's not so bad.

Sanford has spent his time over the past few years moving back and forth between Israel and practices at Arizona State. Like his native Israeli counterparts, he insists something has to change if Israeli athletics is to have a brighter future. He says it would be nice if there were better facilities in the country and if athletics became more popular.

He adds that children must be taught the fundamentals and learn the importance of running, and that more coaches are needed in Israel. He would be prepared to help if he were approached, he says.

The runner will concentrate in the coming weeks on an accelerated preparation for London. He finished fourth at the European Championships in Helsinki two weeks ago with a time of 45.91 seconds. He was just nine one-hundredths of a second shy of a historic medal for Israel.

Despite the achievement, Sanford says he was disappointed in himself and does not want to come away from London with the same feeling. He stresses he really wanted to bring home a medal from the European Championships, just like Alex Averbuch in his day, and that he pledges to represent Israel as best he can. "I'll run as if it were my last race," he says.

Donald Sanford is proud to run for his adoptive country at the 2012 OlympicsCredit: Reuters

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