Michael Wohl has visited Israel several times in the past 10 years, but this summer’s stay has been the most memorable “by far.”
Wohl, a 16-year-old rising junior at East Chapel Hill High School, won silver medals as a member of the U.S. swim team’s 4x100 meter and 4x200 freestyle relays during the 19th Maccabiah Games in Israel.
Afterward, their hosts kept athletes busy with tours of Jerusalem and Masada, visits to nearby beaches and team meals.
“They kept us out pretty late some nights,” Wohl said. “For us to do as well as we did, with that amount of sleep, was very good.”
Wohl was the youngest competitor on the team, which included Beijing Olympic gold medal winner Garrett Weber-Gale.
“The experience was beyond great – beyond all my expectations,” Wohl recalled hours after his return on an international flight Thursday.
“I’d never been in an international competition before. There I was in the pool, with an Australian swimmer on my right and one from England on the left. There were swimmers from Brazil, Mexico … from everywhere, in the pool.”
The Maccabiah Games are sometimes called the “Jewish Olympics” and has remained the world’s largest Jewish athletic competition since its founding in 1932. It draws athletes every four years to Israel from across the world.
Past participants have included former UNC player and NBA coach Larry Brown. This year Weber-Gale, a two-time gold medalist at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, was chosen to bear the American flag and lead the team into Jerusalem’s Teddy Kollek Stadium for the opening ceremonies. U.S. Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman lit the torch.
At first skeptical that he could qualify to compete with such talented athletes, Wohl was convinced by his mother (a native of Israel) to submit the necessary paperwork. Having missed the cut-off date for junior competitors, he had to try for the “open” events, and he admitted to being a bit surprised when he received the invitation to join the U.S. team, based upon his best times as a swimmer with the North Carolina Aquatic Club.
“I felt honored to represent both my country and my Jewish heritage at these games,” Wohl said. “It was something very nice to be there, sharing that experience of being a swimmer and Jewish with people from all over the world.”
Wohl had never met his relay teammates until arriving at the Tel Aviv airport. He was placed on the relay teams based upon his times in the men’s 100- and 200-meter freestyle heats at the Wingate Pool in Netanya. He swam with Weber-Gale and Marcus Schlesinger in both relays, plus Aaron Greenberg in the 400-meter relay and Zachary Zlotof in the 800.
Wohl not only won silvers, he also earned new “cuts” to qualify for the U.S. winter Junior Nationals – with a 53.70 in the 100 free and 1:52.22 in the 200 free.
“I went in there with a positive feeling, and I came back wanting to share that positive feeling with everyone I know,” Wohl said. “I feel ready to go for next season.”