Q&A with Keren Leibovitch
Jewish + Female = Athlete : Portraits of Strength from Around the World
Questions & Answers*
How did you start swimming as a little girl?
I’ve been swimming ever since I was two. I really loved the water. Started swimming professionally when I was 12. I didn’t compete, but I trained professionally. Only after my injury did I start competing. Why? Partially because I was injured. I had to examine the limitations of my body after the injury. That was the first motivation, the initiative. Now it’s not the main motive. Now I swim mainly because I love swimming.
How were you injured?
I was carrying a very heavy load and my back practically broke. It was during officer’s training. I was in training to become an officer and I was injured. I was 18 and a half. Going on 19.
What are you studying?
I’m a motivational speaker, studying philosophy. All forms of philosophy, trying to orientate myself toward feministic philosophy.
What are you reading now?
Descarte, because I have an exam. Spinoza. Simone de Beauvoir.
How does it feel to be the first Paralympic athlete in Israel to have her own sponsor? How did that come about?
There are not yet others. Hopefully it will get better. Pledges haven’t yet come through. They’ve made the first move though. The Minister of Education came to Athens and talked to us, gave us monetary awards for achievements in the Olympics. But they were only for one medal per winner. Even if they won for more than one. It’s only half of what abled bodies get. It’s better than what it was, because it was nothing. At Sydney it was nothing.
I do feel I have a part in the fact that there is a bit more quality in the way the government looks at disabled sports in Israel. The government and public as well. How? By not letting it out of the public eye. By saying it out loud to the media, TV, papers, to everyone. I’m not afraid to speak up. I don’t feel like I’m worth any less because I’m disabled. I don’t feel my achievements are any lesser because I’m disabled. My belief resonates to other people who listen to me.
Where does your determination and courage come from?
Hope. Home. My mother and grandmother. They brought me up that way. My mom brought us up on her own; my parents were divorced when I was six. My grandmother helped her, but my dad wasn’t involved. Twenty-five years ago it wasn’t that casual for a woman to bring up her children by herself. She taught me to fend for yourself and speak up for what you want, and be able to get your way.
What’s your favorite event?
100 back – that’s my event. I am a backstroker. I really enjoy the 200 IM, but I am a backstroker. My shoulders like it, my back likes it. My body is designed to swim backstroke. My positioning in the water. The way I feel in the water doing backstroke is better than when I do any other stroke.
What’s Beit Halochem in Tel Aviv?
It’s the town disabled club. The center where they have sports center, physical therapy and events. It’s a great place. When I started rehab after my injury it felt like home right away. Beit is home. Halochem, the warriors, of the disabled during the war.
What does your training schedule look like?
On a post-Olympic year, I only train once a day. It’s more hectic as Olympic Games come closer: Twice a day in the water, three times a day in the gym. Or once a day in the water and twice a day in the gym. There are the World Championships in 2006 and the European Championships in 2007. I’m aiming myself toward Beijing. Not sure about the Championships. Will base it on how my coach and I feel.
What’s been your biggest challenge and biggest reward?
The Sydney Olympics was my biggest challenge because there was a lot at stake for me at that Games. It was the first Olympic Games I had. The first major championships I had. All the others, the European and Worlds were on the way to the Games for me. And there was a tremendous amount of pressure for me. If I won the Games in Sydney, I could keep living properly in this disabled body I have now. The reward? Being able to do it.
Any thoughts on being a Jewish female athlete?
Not usually, but when we were at the European Championships in Germany in 1999, in which I won three gold medals, I felt very proud. It was very special. When Hatikfa was played in Germany in Paralympics, it really felt like a victory, like a true victory. It felt as if it weren’t just me. Wherever we go to compete and the Jewish community comes, the feeling of togetherness, how they really love me and want me to succeed, makes me very happy. Even though I don’t know them and we’re not related.
What are some of the opportunities you’ve had because of sports?
Other than lighting the beacon on Yom HaAtzmaut, torching the Maccabiah torch in the last Games, being recognized by all the Israelis…It’s one of the first times in Israel that a disabled athlete is looked upon in admiration of successes and not just as coping with disability. It makes me very proud that people can look beyond the disability. I know that I made a difference in lots of people lives. I’ve lectured to people, people who read articles about me. People in the street tell me I’ve made a difference. I don’t think there are many people who can say they made a difference in people’s lives. I think it’s a privilege.
What have you learned from competition?
That you can do whatever you put your mind to. If there’s anything I want, I can achieve it. Training has taught me discipline. Competition has taught me calmness. I cope very well in stressful situations now. And you can echo it to life in general. It doesn’t have to be in competitions. I can cope better now, with the knowledge I have from competition.
What’s your best sports achievement or memory?
I don’t know. I think it’s both the Games in Sydney and Athens. The Games in Sydney were a very big achievement for me, sports-wise. But the Games in Athens were a very big achievement for me in the way I managed to compete with a different motivation. It made me very proud. It was competing for the love of sports rather than checking my boundaries. It’s different.
Who are your role models?
Role model is a big word. Difficult for me to use it. But I know I’m an example for boys and girls. And not just young girls. I gave a lecture today and last year [in Tel Aviv] and afterward they told me what a big difference I made last year, how they set new goals. It’s made me very proud.
What do you plan to do with your philosophy degree?
Go on to earn my Ph.D. and become a philosophy professor.
Where are you studying now?
In Tel Aviv University
Do you want to stay in Tel Aviv?
For now, yes, I’m very comfortable. It’s close to home and Beit Halochem. It has a city vibe. I like Tel Aviv University. I love the coffee shops and museums. It has atmosphere. The atmosphere of a city.
*All interviews were conducted by Jodi Werner Greenwald, the calendar author, for express purposes of the Jewish + Female = Athlete project during 2005.