By David Wiseman
Every athlete who competes at the Olympics has a story. Israeli swimmer Alon Mandel, is no different. The butterflyer competed at Beijing just a few days after his father having passed away. Studying at Michigan, the 2008 NCAA All-American and Big Ten Champion just missed out on qualifying for the Games by .02 seconds. The top 12 make the Games and he was 13th. Then a top 12 swimmer tested positive for steroids and Mandel had a glimmer of hope. Mandel focused on his training while his dad fought the battle out of the pool.
As we know he made it but there was to be another twist. The week before the Games, Mandel’s father fell off a ladder and passed away. Mandel still competed and broke the Israeli record for the 200m butterfly.
He tried valiantly to qualify for London but just missed out.He has an inspirational blog which you can find at his website: http://www.alonmandel.com/
When did you start in your sport? (how old, where)
When I was about 7 years old, at the local country club who held a swimming course for kids around the age of 7-9
When did you know you wanted to be in the Olympics?
I remember watching the 100 backstroke finals at the 2000 Sydney Olympics because Eithan Urbach was the first Israeli to qualify to an Olympic final and I wished myself to make it to the 2008 Olympics then, in September 2000.
How did your commitment to sports change your childhood ?
Obviously I had to sacrifice many things such as social activities with friends from school, yet I gained a lot in other aspects. Time management and multi-tasking are few of my best characters and I attribute it to swimming and the commitment to succeed both at the classroom and at the pool (in that order). I feel like I did not have a normal childhood because I was so driven to make the Olympics, but I have no regrets – on the contrary – I would have done exactly what I did.
What is your first Olympic memory?
The colorfulness of the Beijing Olympic Village. I remember feeling very “rewarded” to be among the best athletes in the world when I marched into the main dining hall.
Who are your role models?
I trained with amazing athletes while I was at Michigan including Michael Phelps and Peter Vanderkaay and other 24 National Team members. Yet, I believe that Eric Vendt was the best athlete I have ever watched training. He’s a great person and trained the hardest and most consistent in the highest level possible. As for role model in life, I would go with Jon Urbanchek, the legendary UM coach (1982-2004) and Fernando Canales, the assistant head coach at Michigan who had coached me to make the 2008 Olympics. Both of whom are like my closest family and I am today because of their teaching, especially Fernando’s.
You share a coach with Michael Phelps? What’s that like? What have you learned from Michael?
Michael and I are friends and it has been a great privilege training with him prior to the Olympic Games in Beijing. The Olympics were every day. At the pool we had a sign: “it’s not every four years; it’s every day”. This statement came out to reality with him. Swimming wise I can’t say that I learned specific things from Phelps (besides technique issues but that was very rare), but I learned that every person is human. On TV you see the medals and the fame, but even the greatest athlete goes into bad days and has to find his way out of it, so it was very interesting to train with him for a couple of years and see how he managed to get out of his issues and get motivated towards the Olympics.
What was your biggest challenge prior to getting to the Olympics?
I would say probably getting into the Engineering School at the University of Michigan. I majored in chemical engineering and every class was tough. Getting into the Engineering school was a milestone for me because it did not come easily for me. On a larger scope, getting the approval to come to Michigan from the Israeli Army required a lot of energy too. For Israelis at age 18 it is very clear – everyone goes to the Army, and I had to get the status of an athlete in order to postpone my service by 4 years. Thus, I would believe that in general getting into Michigan, Army and School wise, was the toughest challenge I’ve ever had to deal with prior to the Olympics.
What has been your biggest challenge since you participated?
I lost my dad couple of days before the Opening ceremony in a sudden accident, and I decided to race in spite of the grief. This has led me to break two national records at the Games (in 100 and 200 fly). I believe that my biggest challenge since the Games is to continue my life without the guidance of my dad, who was my biggest supporter and mentor and advisor. You make decisions in life, sometimes you think about them carefully and sometimes without the appropriate people you can’t make a wise decision. I believe that since his passing my biggest challenge has been to “grow up fast” from age 20 (my age at the 2008 Olympics) to a grown man who needs to support his family with confidence.
What were your expectations heading into Beijing?
I wanted to break two national records in the 100 and 200 fly (which I did), and try to qualify to the semi-finals in the 200 fly (I came up short).
Is there anything about sport in Israel that you wish you could fix?
I would like to increase the awareness to the Olympic sports. Soccer and Basketball are always on the front pages and the Olympic sports gets pushed to the back pages. This eventually reflects in low budgets and low salaries for the athletes. More importantly, I would like to help athletes in their next chapter in life after the sport career ends. Athletes find it very hard to get into the job market and I want to take the responsibility and design a portal to assist athletes in planning their next chapter.
Besides swimming, what sports at the Olympics do you like to watch?
Athletics and Judo.
At the games you were at, which people did you meet that made you go ‘wow’!
I remember seeing Nadal in front of me at the line in the big dining hall at the Olympic village. It was a big wow for me.
Since I trained with Phelps for couple of years, I did not really get excited to much for figures in the swimming world, but outside the swimming world I got very excited.
Post swimming, what are your plans now? You wrote about diplomacy? Would you like to be involved in swimming as a coach/motivator?
Wow. This is a long one. I am towards the end of my environmental engineering degree at Tel Aviv University, about to start another master degree in political science (security and diplomacy), also at Tel Aviv (executive program, like MBA for for Political Science), and apply to a PhD degree in a program sponsored by the International Olympic Committee about how to improve and optimize the possibilities for athletes to successfully transit from athletics into professional careers. I give motivational talks as a part of my service in the Army, where I talk about Success, and I like doing it. I do not see my future as a coach, although I am coaching the Army’s Swimming Team nowadays (part of my mandatory service). I like swimming, but would like to affect on the “macro” level rather than on the “micro” level. The purpose of the diplomacy studies to perhaps become a foreign minister one day or be an important figure that represent the athletes and associated with excellence.