Israeli Arab Olympic Hopeful Thrown in at the Deep End

Tal Ben Ezra
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Tal Ben Ezra

All Jowan Qupty ever wanted was to swim. Born in Jerusalem, the son of a lawyer from Nazareth who met his Tarshiha-born wife in Tel Aviv University, Qupty has already had to deal with difficult situations. But he never let them stop him.

When he decided he wanted to be a world-class swimmer, he left Israel at the age of 16 to train better. He participated in the Youth Maccabiah games - despite not being Jewish - and now, when the Israel Swimming Association is doing its best to foil his dream, he's fighting for his rights.

"When I look ahead, it's hard to stop me," he says.

The 22-year-old set the best time of any Israeli this year in the 100-meter breaststroke, and was positive he would join the 4x100 meter medley relay (together with Nimrod Shapira Bar-Or in freestyle, Guy Barnea or Yonatan Kopelev in backstroke and Alon Mandel in butterfly ). But then the ISA decided to name Imri Ganiel as the breaststroke swimmer. Ganiel has, indeed, passed the 50-meter breaststroke criterion for the European Championships in Debrecen that start tomorrow, but his time in the longer distance is slower than Qupty's. When the case was brought to the ISA's tribunal it ruled that both swimmers will travel to Hungary, and whoever swims the faster 100-meter heat will join the medley relay team.

Despite the saga being formally settled, Qupty is still raging at the ISA's behavior, and at its chairman, Noam Zvi.

"Everybody believes I'm a victim of racism, but I want to believe this isn't the case," he says. "I was caught in a political struggle. Zvi and my coach founded Hapoel Jerusalem, and then fell out. Zvi became the association's chairman and he helps Hapoel Jerusalem as much as he can. Whoever belongs to our team, 'Jerusalem United,' suffers because we're allegedly the opposition. I've heard similar stories before, so I'm not really that surprised."

Swimming wasn't always that complicated. Qupty remembers the first time he swam in the Jerusalem YMCA swimming pool: "In the beginning they would lower us into the water just so we could touch it," he recalls. "I was scared at first, but then really began loving it."

At the age of 11 he already won his first national medal, in 200-meter breaststroke, and from that point on he knew what he was aiming for. After setting several youth records, he decided to make a bold move.

"At the age of 16 I understood that if I really wanted to improve, I couldn't do it in Israel," he explains. "I tried to train with the Wingate Institute academy, but I didn't really feel at home there. The formula is very simple: Whoever wants to really make it as a swimmer studies in the U.S."

Qupty moved to Bolles School, a private college in Jacksonville, Florida, where his friend Nimrod Shapira Bar-Or was already swimming. Qupty trained with top coaches and was very successful, winning the Florida breaststroke 100-meter title, and at 17 years of age was ranked #1 in the United States in the 200-meter breaststroke. He also continued to represent Israel in various championships, including the Youth Maccabiah games.

"I've been representing Israel since I was 14 and it always seemed the most natural thing to do," he says. "There will always be those who will want to add an asterisk, or ask 'why doesn't he represent Palestine?' but I'm fine with my decision."

Like all outstanding athletes, Qupty had offers from many colleges. Beyond his feats in the pool, his high grades and fluency in five languages - Arabic, Hebrew, English, Spanish and French - caught the attention of colleges such as Brown and Cornell, but Qupty was already set on fulfilling his Olympic dream and finally chose Irvine, due to its swimming program. But after a year, during which he was injured for several months, Qupty was disappointed.

"At the end of the year I wanted to move elsewhere because I didn't see the improvement I was hoping for," he says. "There was an amateurish atmosphere. Swimmers were more interested in partying than in practicing. I always needed a serious working surrounding. Lacking that, I don't succeed."

After one semester in Israel, Qupty joined the University of Missouri, where he began training under coach Greg Rhodenbaugh and enjoyed state-of-the-art training facilities, including physicians, masseurs and fitness coaches. Last year he decided to defer his studies so he could focus on his preparations for the London Olympic Games.

Still, Qupty flew to Hungary in a rather gloomy mood. He says he was well aware that despite setting the best time, problems would arise.

"The politics surrounding the Israel Swimming Association are unbelievable," he says. "Zvi has been elected to another four-year term by a 98-percent majority. Where else in the world could that happen? Everybody is afraid to vote against him, fearing his reprisal. He already targeted me, so what else can he do now?

"The association claims it was a professional decision, but it obviously wasn't. They used every trick in the book to prevent me from attending the championships. They tried to say the relay medley team had no chance to win, so why send the fastest swimmer, and then they said something about morning or evening criteria that don't even exist. The fact is the tribunal believed me. My purpose wasn't to harm Imri - he's an excellent swimmer, but I'm faster in 100 meters and that's what counts. I won't give up on the dream."

And the dream never leaves Qupty. He drew the Olympic rings on his water bottle "to remind myself where I'm aiming at."

Until that happens, his immediate goal is to help the relay team. "I really believe the team can set one of the four best times. After all the efforts by so many people, I really don't want to let anyone down. I'll give my best. I even dream of setting a new Israeli record. I'm an athlete who really wants to succeed, but also to represent the state and the Arab community in Israel. Up to this day we've never had an Arab representing Israel in the Olympics. I want to be the first, and to encourage other Arab athletes to compete. I want them to look at me and say: 'We can do it as well.'"

A spokesperson for the ISA told Haaretz: "Twenty four hours before the European Championships begin, the Israeli national team is focused on the success of the swimmers, mutual help and support. As a rule, Israeli swimmers are known for their ability to reach their peak while being humble and courteous. It is unfortunate that a swimmer, appearing in the national team for the first time, ignores all existing norms and degrades the national coach, who believed and still believes that a swimmer who did not set the personal criterion should not participate in the current championships. The national team is ready for its most important mission two months before the Olympics, and the heads of the delegation won't allow anyone to harm the preparations."

Jowan Qupty. Credit: Emil Salman