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South Africans swim to victory at European Maccabi Games

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“Off the charts,” is how Elan Sawitzky, #TeamMaccabiSA’s head of delegation, describes the team’s 51 swimming medals at the recently-completed 2019 European Maccabi Games (EMG) in Budapest, Hungary.
by LUKE ALFRED | Aug 15, 2019

Competing in futsal, half-marathon, tennis, table-tennis, and swimming, #TeamMaccabiSA’s swimmers hauled in a tally of 51 out of the 68 medals gained, which put the South Africans sixth on the overall medal table behind the United States, Hungary, Germany, Great Britain, and Lithuania (in that order).

Sixth overall also put them second-highest of eight non-European competitors behind the US – a remarkable achievement. “We knew we had a good chance of winning some medals, but this was off the charts,” said Sawitzky. “The team were also excellent ambassadors for our country. We’re immensely proud of what they achieved.”

Said Maccabi Chairman Cliff Garrun, “To come fifth in total [SA gained more medals than Lithuania overall, but Lithuania won more golds] against countries with far bigger delegations and who have significantly more resources – including teams of full-time staff – is an exceptional achievement.

“All the hard work and training that our athletes put in paid off. They really did South Africa proud.”

Swimming’s big splash in Hungary is due to a number of factors, some well-documented, others less-so. Fundraising was an important part of getting the swimmers to Hungary. The money was provided by several generous benefactors who reached into their pockets without hesitation, but who prefer to remain anonymous.

Among the better documented reasons is a culture of early-hours training before school, and punishing training afterwards. There was remarkable dedication from parents and swimmers, as well as a culture of team camps, outreach, and bonding. “To get to Hungary, they worked like absolute dogs,” said a member of the 86-strong South African delegation, most of whom returned home from Hungary either on the weekend or earlier this week.

Possibly the most important reason of all for #TeamMaccabiSA’s 51 medals in the pool comes in the form the Cape Town-based Hungarian coach, Csanad Feldhausz, who grew up training at the Alfréd Hajós National Swimming Centre in Budapest where the swimming events for the EMG took place.

Feldhausz has swum for Hungary, and has firm ideas about what is needed to get ahead in the competitive world of international swimming. There was some privately-expressed anxiety when Feldhausz started coaching the young Maccabi swimmers, but his ethos of hard training and self-belief has clearly paid dividends.

A relentless optimist, the Hungarian believes there is nothing that can’t be achieved if you believe in yourself, and the team’s remarkable achievement in the pool is a vindication of his endeavours. “We challenged them every step of the way,” he said as he looked back on several hard years of blood, sweat, and tears.

The swimming team’s haul of 51 medals put it third on the medals table for swimming, behind the US and Hungary. Although the South Africans won fewer golds than the Hungarians, they won more medals overall, beating the hosts of the 15th European Maccabi Games by 51 medals to 29.

Standout performers included Jaden Harris (12 medals, six golds), Daniella Solkow (11 medals, four golds), and Benji Sack (nine medals, eight golds). Many of the 12-strong swimming team are educated at Herzlia, and although they don’t train there, all members of the team were able to win at least three medals, including the team’s youngest members.

This augurs well for the Maccabiah in Israel in two years’ time. “Their results bode well for our future, and I look forward to watching their progress and hopefully seeing them all in Israel in 2021,” said Garrun.

As for Feldhausz, he was brimming with pride. “I’m so proud of the time put in, dedication, and commitment from our swimmers, and they responded with these excellent results. It was also such a special experience to be able to share my love for my country with the team. I hope they left with great memories of Budapest, and an even greater passion for swimming.”

While the EMG was about gaining medals, renewing old friendships, breaking bread, and having fun, it was finally a family affair. Take tennis player in the 45+ category, Rob Sulcas, who teamed up with Brad Bloch to win bronze in the men’s doubles, while Sulcas’s sons, Benji and Jamie, both won futsal medals.

They were not alone. Dedicated mom, Vanessa Arelisky, whose sons, Nicholas and Jordan, won medals in the pool and on the futsal court respectively. Vanessa, a Western Province Maccabi board member, had a hectic EMG, spending busy days shuttling between futsal and the pool.

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