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Australian athlete cheered by ex-SA family in Sydney

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Although there have been many world-class Jewish Olympic athletes, it’s safe to say that there haven’t been many with strong Jewish South African connections.

Track and field sprinter Steven Solomon, 28, of Sydney, Australia, is one of them. He’s the son of ex-South Africans, Dr Michael Solomon, originally from Cape Town, and his wife, Lucille, from Durban.

The determined athlete gave his loving family enormous nachas at this year’s exciting 400m athletic events. He clocked a personal best of 44.94 to make it into the semi-finals, beating South African World and Olympic record holder and gold medallist, Wayde van Niekerk.

Solomon fell just short of qualifying for the final.

At the weekend, in stifling morning heat at about 12:00 midday Sydney time, Solomon, the Australian co-captain and the 400m finalist from the London Olympics, ran better than he has ever run before to make the semi-finals.

His family thousands of kilometres away in Australia watched this race from the comfort of their Sydney home.

A home video taken on a cell phone shows the family in a nail-biting moment of tension and excitement as the athlete powered his way around the track, finishing second.

“Man, talk about nerves,” said his father this week.

Michael, an orthopaedic surgeon specialising in hip and knee surgery, told the SA Jewish Report that his son was “in the best shape of his life and gave it his all”.

Solomon went on to stop the clock on Monday, 2 August, in 45.15 to finish in third place of his semi-final and 13th place overall at the Tokyo Olympic Games. It was a performance that he told his family he was happy with, although he conceded that his main goal was to make the final.

“While I’m delighted that he’s running so well, I’m also half looking forward to his retirement. It’s so stressful,” the proud father jokingly told the SA Jewish Report.

In the video, which was later aired on Australian television, you see Steven’s sister, Bianca, 25, and their mother sitting on the couch silently looking nervous at the start of the race. As Steven begins to make headway, their faces light up, and they begin screaming, “Go Steven, go!” louder and louder ending in a frenzy of jubilation, tears, and hugs. Michael is seen hopping up and down, fist pumping the air and whooping as his son outperforms all expectations. Even the family’s Labrador, Luna, makes a tail-wagging appearance.

The moment was all the more sweet considering all the trials and tribulations the athlete has experienced in his running career.

“It hasn’t been plain sailing. There have been many ups and downs,” said Michael.

According to The Age newspaper, Solomon faded from international prominence after London, largely through injury and studying in the United States, but managed to “re-discover his best at the right time”.

He made the final at the London Olympics as a 19-year-old, but then didn’t make the games in Rio in 2016. Rio was a hard experience for him as he was coming back from hamstring surgery.

“He has trained so hard. He was gutted when he narrowly missed Rio, and was more determined than ever to make these Olympic Games,” said Michael.

Solomon has an impressive resume of athletic achievements spanning more than a decade, making him one of the most experienced and respected athletes in Australia. Some said he was the perfect captain to lead the team in Tokyo.

Solomon’s family is still on a high after the 44.94 he ran on Sunday, which wouldn’t quite have got him to the final, but it was a personal best and a glorious moment the family will never forget.

Michael said he and his wife, who were married in Claremont Shul, left South Africa in 1988 shortly after he completed his medical degree at the University of Cape Town. Michael has returned several times for class reunions and to lecture.

“My wife still has elderly relatives in Durban. Steven absolutely has connections to South Africa, and has visited the country twice, once as a baby,” he said.

The family spend most Friday nights together, sometimes in the company of their many ex-South African friends, all of whom have children whom he said were “very attuned to South Africa”.

“Steven’s girlfriend, Gabi Blomson’s, parents are also from Durban,” he said.

Born in Sydney, Solomon attended Lindfield East Public School and Cranbrook School. He planned to follow his father into medicine after accepting an athletic scholarship in track at Stanford University where he studied human biology. He set track records at Stanford.

“Steven went to Stanford, and then did one year post graduate in business studies at Duke University,” said his father.

Always a sporty kid, he first began track training in 2009 and that year, won the U17 All Schools Championships in 400m. He has competed twice for Australia in the Maccabiah Games, first in soccer then as a track athlete.

The confident athlete told the Sydney Morning Herald it was “beautiful to be back at an Olympic Games”.

“Rio was such a hard experience for me, coming back from hamstring surgery, every weekend for six months missing the qualifier by 0.04, 0.10, 0.11, 0.15. It was such a hard thing, but that experience gave gravity to what I’d done in London … Personal bests don’t come every week. I had to wait nine years for my personal best.”

The family is patiently looking forward to reuniting with the star athlete and wishing him a hearty mazeltov in person, but it has to wait it out until he comes out of quarantine.

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