It all started with a phone call. In May, Michigan junior swimmer Alon Mandel received a call from his mother in Israel. She had some good news.
“She told me that the Greek swimmer that had won the 200 butterfly at the European championships had tested positive for drugs,” he said. “I knew immediately that I was going to the Olympics.”
Mandel narrowly missed making the Olympic team when he needed to place in the top 12 in the event to qualify, but finished 13th, just two one-hundredths of a second behind the 12th place swimmer.
On August 5, three days before the Olympic Opening Ceremonies, Mandel and his teammates arrived in Beijing. During his second night in the Olympic Village, Mandel was woken up at 4 a.m. There was another phone call for him. His mother was calling from Israel. This time, the news was not good.
“I told him a terrible thing has happened to us,” Mandel’s mother Rina said. “Your father has died. But I know he would want you to stay and swim and have the swim of your life.”
Mandel’s father, an Israeli naval commander, died instantly when he fell off a ladder after suffering heart failure. He was hanging a banner honoring his son’s Olympic achievement. Although the news was hard to handle, Mandel said his decision to stay and compete was one of the easiest decisions he’s ever made.
“I just knew I was going to devote this meet to him,” he said. “To swim my races for my dad is the greatest honor I can give him. Some people in Israel would really question what kind of people we are becoming where sport is more important than religion, but anyone who knew my dad would know that I made the obvious decision and the right one. I haven’t regretted it for a minute.”
Just five days after his father’s death, Mandel swam his first Olympic event, the 200-meter butterfly. The pain was difficult to deal with at first, he said, but became easier every day. But not only was Mandel concerned with managing his own emotions, he was also aware of his impact on his teammates’ mindset.
“The hardest part is to isolate yourself from everything in the pool,” he said. “When I thought about it, my goggles were wet from the inside, and not from the water. Forty-eight hours before I swam, I began to be completely isolated so that when I got to the pool, I could just focus on my race and my technique. But it was also important for me to not be miserable outside the pool because by doing that, you negatively affect your teammates.”
Mandel was especially appreciative of the support he received from Club Wolverine teammates Eric Vendt and Peter Vanderkaay and former Michigan coach Jon Urbanchek. Just six hours after hearing Mandel’s father had died, Urbanchek spoke with Mandel at a flag raising ceremony in the Olympic Village.
“I got a lot of support from Jon and I admire him for being such a good swim coach and a caring person,” he said. “When he talked to me, it was kind of a fatherly conversation. All the support reminded me that I’m here and right now, I’ve got to get the job done and feel bad later.”
Just being in Beijing was a dream come true for Mandel, whose lifelong goal had been to swim at the Olympics.
In 2003, when Mandel walked into Canham Natatorium for the first time, he carried a purple keychain on his backpack that he had made in 2001 engraved with his name and “08.08.08,” the date of the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympic Games.
As he walked through the hallway decorated with the swim caps of former Michigan Olympians from around the world, he noticed there was one country that was unrepresented: Israel.
“When I stepped into the pool and saw the Hall of Fame and all the caps, I knew right away I wanted to put the Israeli cap up there, and its been my goal since then,” he said.
Because Israel is a small country it does not have its own Olympic trials qualifying meet like in the United States. To qualify for the Israeli Olympic team a swimmer had to finish in the top 12 of an event at the European Swimming Championships in the Netherlands last March. Mandel finished in 13th place in the 200-meter butterfly. He not only set an Israeli national record, but he also became the first Israeli swimmer ever to swim the 200-meter butterfly in under two minutes.
But he was still 0.02 seconds away from qualifying for the Olympics.
When Greek swimmer Ioannis Drymonakos was disqualified, Mandel didn’t have an automatic ticket to Beijing. It would take two months of fighting against what Mandel called the “international bureaucracy” to secure his spot on the Israeli team.
“In an Olympic year, the Greek Federation would not want a doped swimmer under their name, so they tried to cover it up,” he said. “My dad and my mom worked day and night to pull some strings. They got some help from the president of the World Swimming Federation and some very kind people and eventually, it worked. But they didn’t just sit at home and wait for it to come.”
In the meantime, Mandel flew to Spain, where he spent two and a half weeks at a training camp with the Israeli Olympic team. While he was there, Mandel learned Drymonakos was denied an appeal and would not be allowed to compete. Mandel would be going to Beijing.
Mandel’s ability to stay focused on his races certainly paid off. He improved his time in the 100- and 200-meter butterfly events and set an Israeli national record in both. Although he swam with a heavy heart, he touched the wall with a proud sense of accomplishment for achieving his lifelong goal.
Back at home, Mandel’s personal tragedy had instantly captured the interest of many people who heard his story. Mandel’s mother stayed at home during the Olympics and was surprised at the amount of attention her son received.
“He became a hero in Israel,” she said. “You cannot even imagine how many stories were in the newspapers, on the Internet and on TV. When Alon was swimming around noon in Israel, everyone dropped what they were doing to find a TV and see how he was doing. All of Israel was behind him.”
After his final races were over in China, Mandel returned to Israel to attend his father’s funeral. Ten days later, just two days after his 20th birthday, he was on another plane. This time he was heading back to Ann Arbor to begin a new school year and collegiate swim season.
Walking across campus this fall, Mandel still carries the same purple key chain he made over seven years ago. The Olympic games are over, but the key chain is now a reminder of the hard work and dedication that helped him achieve his goal. This season, he hopes to win an individual event at the Big Ten Championships. His goal for the London games in 2012 is to finish in the top eight.
“I don’t think after this experience, I will ever experience such a hard thing,” he said. “I said the same thing after the crazy March I had with three swim meets. But now that I’ve had this bigger thing happen, I believe each one of us can always have the energy to do our best, but we just have to believe in ourselves.”