The Wonderful Sprinter of Oz

Australian Jewish track star Steven Solomon has spent the past three years going training for Olympic gold, and now has his sights on the finish line.

SYDNEY – When Steven Solomon explodes out of the starting blocks at the Olympic Stadium on Saturday, he will most probably not be focusing on his meteoric rise to the top of world athletics.

But the trackside commentators will most likely recount the young Australian’s zero-to-hero story. For it was exactly three years ago that Solomon competed for the first time in the Maccabiah – dubbed the “Jewish Olympics ” – albeit with one critical difference.

In Tel Aviv, the Sydney-born sportsman captained the junior soccer team; in London, Australia’s only Jewish Olympian will compete in the 400-meter sprint and the 4x400 meter relay.

The last two and a half years for this Aussie Jew have been a whirlwind, says his father, Michael Solomon, a South African-born orthopedic surgeon.

“The whole thing has been quite surreal because it’s happened so rapidly, ” the elder Solomon said this week.

In 2009, Solomon won the under-17s 400-meter race at the All Schools Championship. The following year, in Tasmania, he broke a 400 meter record that had stood for 27 years. Then in 2011 he won the 400 meter at the Australian National Championship and, despite suffering a hamstring injury, he managed to defend his national title this year.

And just two weeks ago, he won bronze at the World Junior Championships in Barcelona, stopping the clock at 45.52 seconds – a personal best. He also posted a blistering sub-45 second relay leg that helped the Australians qualify for London.
Solomon credits his red-hot form to his coach, Fira Dvoskina, a 77-year-old Jewish immigrant from the Ukraine who has helped shave more than three full seconds off his time in the last two years.

His consistently improving results prompted Athletics Australia officials to select the youngster over veteran Commonwealth and Olympic medalist John Steffensen, who defeated Solomon at the Olympic trials earlier this year, though neither managed an automatic qualifying time.

The decision sparked a race row in which the Jewish rookie was the unwitting man in the middle. Steffensen, a black 29-year-old of South African descent, threatened to boycott the Games, blaming alleged discrimination by officials.

“I’ve put up with being racially vilified by this federation, being discriminated against on many teams, ” he said of Athletics Australia. “You know it would help if I was a different color. ”

Solomon refused to be drawn into the scandal, simply saying at a recent press conference: ‘The biggest pressure that I get from anyone is the pressure that I put on myself. So any pressure I get from other athletes is almost irrelevant. ”
Solomon, who is also a keen surfer, has amassed a huge cheer squad in Australia, led by Maccabi officials. Michael Vasin, the chief executive of Maccabi in Sydney, hailed Solomon – who won the Maccabi NSW junior sportsman of the year in 2009 and the sportsman of the year trophy in 2011 – as a “celebrity within our midst.”
“It’s unbelievable,” Vasin said. “He’s blown everybody away. ”

Harry Procel, the head of the Australian team for the 2013 Maccabiah, is traveling to London this week to watch Solomon race.

“He is a wonderful Australian athlete,” said Procel, a survivor of the ill-fated 1997 Maccabiah Games in which four Australians died when a bridge collapsed at the opening ceremony. “The fact he is Jewish makes it even more special.”

In an email message, Barry Smorgon, the chairman of Maccabi Australia, said: “He has done the community proud and has certainly been a worthy winner of the Maccabi awards. He is a humble young man. Hopefully he will be in Israel next year for the Maccabiah as well.

Before that, however, he will enroll at Stanford University in California on a scholarship to study medicine. He said he was inspired to follow in the footsteps of his father after he went to Tonga to help him on an aid program when he was 16.

“He’s got an amazing opportunity at Stanford to be running in the NCAA [National Collegiate Athletics Association], the best competition in the world for people at his level,” his father said.

First, however, Australia’s fastest sprinter over 400 meters will attempt to upstage some of the world’s best, including the defending Olympic champion, American LaShawn Merritt.

If he manages that miracle he will join baseballer Gavin Fingleson, who won silver in Athens, becoming Australia’s first – and thus far only – Jewish Olympic medalist.
Solomon told a press conference on the eve of the Games: “I definitely go in there with a goal to do something special and do something that people wouldn’t expect me to do.

Three years ago few, if any, expected him to be competing at the Olympics. His parents and sister will be watching inside the stadium this weekend.

“It's unbelievable. Every year there’s been a bigger and better achievement, ” his father said. “You think, ‘When is this all going to stop?’”

Henry Benjamin