As others his age embarked on their final year as college students last August, Nadav Aaronson set foot on campus for the first time. The native of Ramot Hashavim, Israel was a wide-eyed freshman — at 21 years old.
Aaronson found himself surrounded by new classmates who, at three years his junior, were the same age as his younger sister, and all had mostly followed the same linear path. High school bled into college, one a stepping stone for the next.
It’s a path Aaronson wasn’t offered.
“Look at 18-year-old Israelis and 18-year-old Americans,” Aaronson told The Daily. “Americans, they graduate high school and they’re free to continue in their life, go to college, do the stuff they want. In Israel, it’s not like that.”
Instead, the Israeli Defense Force beckons.
The IDF’s use of conscription dates back to its establishment in 1948. Accordingly, Israeli citizens view their service as a right of passage.
“It’s basically what defines us Israelites,” Aaronson said. “It’s something that everywhere you go, every time you meet someone, one of the first couple sentences you have with someone is about what they did in the army.”
As Aaronson enjoyed life as a high school senior, his stint in the IDF grew imminent. Having already turned 18 — satisfying the draft’s minimum age requirement — he was bound for a 2-to-3 year tour of duty when the school year finished.
On February 5, 2017, his life upended.
“The transition was really difficult,” Aaronson said. “To go from living at home and being in high school with all my friends and having a normal life as a kid, it’s really different. And at basic training, I couldn’t train for swimming.”
It was a predicament Aaronson never faced before. From the moment he took up swimming as an eager 10-year-old, the water had been his second home. During the two-month basic training stretch in which recruits are taught military fundamentals, his pastime was brought to a jarring halt.
For any athlete, a hiatus from one’s sport poses a substantial challenge; for Aaronson, the timing could hardly have been more inopportune. With high school in the rearview mirror, he hoped to prolong his swimming career at an American university.
Then suddenly, he could make it to the pool just twice in an eight week span.
“That was hard,” Aaronson said. “I just really wanted to swim.”
Dealt a hand out of his control, Aaronson had to choose how to take the change. Deciding what to do was easy.
“I just had to have the state of mind that I need to do (my service) and it doesn’t matter, because everyone needs to go through it,” Aaronson said. “Basically every citizen in Israel has done it. So you just do it.”
It’s an attitude that speaks to both Aaronson’s maturity and positivity. Israeli citizens had sacrificed in the IDF for seventy years; now, it was his turn. Dwelling on it wouldn’t change the reality.
With a new outlook in tow, Aaronson grew to relish basic training and its simplicity.
“Everyone is wearing the same uniform, everyone is shaved, everyone is buzzed,” Aaronson said. “You have no idea what their backgrounds are. I learned from that to not judge and think things about people from their appearance. I tried to understand more about the person behind what you see.”
Aaronson cherished each interaction, going out of his way to strike up conversations with peers from every corner of the country. He treasured the time spent swapping stories and jokes into the early hours of the morning, unbothered by the early wake-up calls that loomed. Even the draining workouts and incessant yelling from his commanders became tolerable.
As Aaronson recounts these experiences now, there’s a tinge of nostalgia in his voice. He was without swimming. But that was okay. It would be there on the other side.
“Sometimes, I would want to do other things, want to swim,” Aaronson said. “But when I look at the big picture, it’s all worth it.”
When the recruits were given their permanent assignments, Aaronson’s swimming status made him one of the more fortunate ones.
The IDF designated Aaronson an elite athlete, subsequently sparing him from the front-line combat that many of his friends would soon endure. His duty would be in an office role, leading training programs for higher ranked commanders and organizing sets of activities for incoming units.
On top of that, he was free to swim again.
Juggling swimming with service meant long days — 6 a.m. starts and 7 p.m. finishes, with training sessions sandwiching a six hour stint at the Wingate Base. Aaronson concedes that each day was “really challenging,” until he put his situation in perspective.
“Whoever’s not an athlete goes to be a combat soldier,” Aaronson said. “Compared to the service that my friends did, to see all my non-athlete friends having to go into combat, I’m just always grateful I had the opportunity to combine service and swimming.”
Gradually, Aaronson’s dream to swim collegiately in America came back into focus. Israel lacks wide-scale collegiate athletics. Amongst Israeli athletes, Aaronson said, heading overseas is fairly common. He’s seen teammates and idols alike make the leap after their service. He wanted to be next.
Amongst a slew of options, only one school filled his criterion.
“Really quickly, I found that Michigan was something more than my individual swims,” Aaronson said. “I just wanted to be a part of something that is bigger than the individual sport.”
There’s a dichotomy between swimming, a sport so inherently individualistic, and the notion of team. Aaronson, more so than many of his peers, values the group aspect of swimming because of his time in the IDF, where his individual sacrifices opened his eyes to the importance of the whole.
Michigan coach Mike Bottom runs his swimming and diving program under a core value system. The values, ranging from purpose to progress to integrity, span five different tiers, each tier designating a level of importance.
One value stands alone at the top.
“The team is the building block of the value system,” Bottom said. “That’s what sets us apart from a lot of other programs, our focus on the team. It’s something that Nadav saw in us, and again, it’s a part of who he is.
“Nadav, he’s like the glue that pulls people together. Everybody wants to be a part of that.”
That’s all Aaronson wanted — to be a part of a strong team culture. That’s why he committed to Michigan in May of 2018, even with his IDF service still ongoing.
In being forced to put his own life pursuits on hold, to look past his own swimming feats, to be uprooted from his cushy high school life, Aaronson found perspective that few 21-year-olds have:
“You’re something that is much bigger than yourself.”