August 10, 2003, Updated September 13, 2012

Shachar Gdalizon took home two swimming medals at the Special Olympics in Dublin, IrelandAs Shachar Gdalizon stood on the winner’s podium in Dublin, Ireland last month with a gold medal hanging proudly on her neck, her parents Ruti and Eitan didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. So they did both.

Shachar, an 18-year-old with Down’s syndrome won the 100-meter freestyle swimming competition in the Special Olympics for her age range. She followed that victory with a silver medal finish in the 50-meter freestyle, returning triumphantly from Ireland to Israel to great fanfare and acclaim.

The Special Olympics are held once every four years, for athletes with either physical or mental handicaps. The 2003 Olympics in Dublin this year was a major event, attracting an especially high level of international attention, with 80,000 viewers attending the gala opening ceremony at which U2 performed. The Israeli delegation grabbed headlines early on this year after some of the athletes from Arab countries refused to compete against them.

Bringing Israel pride in such a situation made Gdalizon’s victory particularly sweet.

No less so the fact that her accomplishment capped the long, difficult and inspiring story of her life, which her parents have devoted themselves to and documented in detail, hoping that Shachar’s struggles and accomplishments might inspire and support other Down?s syndrome children and their parents.

Over the past two years, she had honed her swimming skills under the tutelage of coach Ahmed Natour, who taught her to be patient, pace herself in her race and to always believe in herself and her ability to succeed and win.

But her training in persistence and endurance began long before she became an athlete.

Like most parents who learn that their new baby has special needs, a swimming championship was the last thing that the Gdalizons could have imagined when she was young. Born after a difficult and complicated labor, Shachar came out of the womb tinted purple. Soon afterwards, her condition was identified: Down’s Syndrome.

Her doctor asked her parents a question that they found astounding, “Will you want to take her home?”

The idea that they would abandon a child with special needs was incomprehensible to them. Her mother, Ruti said, “We were children of the 70?s looking for meaning and purpose in life. When she was born, I realized, here is the meaning that I’ve been looking for all along. Here is something to dedicate myself to.”

Though she had been born on a kibbutz in the north of the country, Ruti had left it when she was younger, but returned there to raise her daughter, at the request of the members.

“They said we had to come live there, they told us that they felt that growing up with someone like Shachar would make the other kibbutz children better human beings.”

Shachar went to school with all of the other kibbutz children, forgoing special education for full mainstreaming. It wasn’t easy for her, and often lonely, but her parents are convinced that she could never have achieved what she has without that important socializing experience.

She truly thrived when she discovered swimming. The swimming pool became the place where she could deal with her frustrations, and more importantly, discover success and accomplishment.

Two years ago, she was discovered by the Israeli Special Olympics committee, and for the eight months before the games in June, trained intensively with Natour and her teammates at a special camp away from home.

Natour found working with the Special Olympics athletes inspiring. “These were people who had been raised with the expectation that they were going to fail. All of their life they have dealt with mental and physical limitations. I looked at them with awe, and tried to send the message that all success or failure depends on is the level of faith that you have.”

Ahmed and Shachar put their faith in one another. Ahmed taught her to strategize her swimming, conserving her strength for an all-out finish. And until the critical race, made her believe that she could do it.

“I told her that there were five competitors who were very strong together with her, and if she wanted to win it wouldn’t be easy,” he said. “But I also said that if she does everything that I have taught her — she will win. I knew even while she was just warming up that she would win the race.”

Even before she was a swimming champion, Shachar was a role model. From when she was young, her parents became a lifeline for new parents of Down?s Syndrome babies. Doctors from various hospitals would call them at any hour of the night and they would sit with the parents, show them pictures of their daughter and show them what Down’s Syndrome children were capable of.

Taking it a step further, a documentary crew has been filming Shachar’s development for the past ten years. Her parents have painful footage of therapists telling them that she may never speak. Today she is articulate and intelligent.

“There are a lot of ‘normal’ people whose level of perception and sensitivity doesn’t come near to Shachar’s,” her father said, adding that this isn’t always easy. They have had to tackle her questions like “Why am I different, why did you make them this way? Can I get better? Will anyone ever love me?”

The first two questions may have been difficult to answer. The answer to the third — particularly after she brought such pride to her country and her family — was and remains an unequivocal “Yes.”

(This article includes material translated from the Hebrew daily Yediot Aharonot)

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