Yulia Karra
December 10, 2023

With Israel embroiled in one of the most challenging security crises since its establishment, not many in the country have the time to think about the state of national sports. 

But those in the sports industry in the country do think of the victims, especially those who sustained serious injuries. 

Severe wounds may not always be life threatening, but losing a limb or an ability to perform everyday tasks is definitely life changing. 

A new initiative established by the Israel Sports Association for the Disabled and the Israel Paralympic Committee aims to help the wounded adapt to their new reality, both physically and mentally.

No substitute for sport 

“The goal is to accompany them from the moment they arrive at hospitals’ rehabilitation centers and all throughout the recovery process at home,” Israeli paralympic swimming champion Ron Bolotin, who is now a member of Israel’s Paralympic Committee, tells ISRAEL21c. 

Paralympic swimmer Ron Bolotin cheering on the Israeli paralympic team. Photo by Keren Isaacson
Paralympic swimmer Ron Bolotin cheering on the Israeli paralympic team. Photo by Keren Isaacson

The initiative is voluntary. Any current or former paralympic athletes, or disabled athletes in general, who are interested in taking part in the project can simply sign up to participate, as can personal trainers, coaches, physiotherapists and sports psychologists. 

So far, over 20 athletes have confirmed their participation in the project, including Asael Shabo, a paralympic wheelchair basketball player. 

Shabo lost his leg in a terror attack in 2002, when a terrorist broke into his family home in Itamar, gunning down his mother and three brothers. 

Asael Shabo, a paralympic wheelchair basketball player. Photo by Keren Isaacson
Asael Shabo, a paralympic wheelchair basketball player. Photo by Keren Isaacson

“We have athletes who have a personal experience with disabilities who can testify to the benefits of sport,” he says. “The same goes for our professional staff, who have vast experience in treating those with disabilities.”

Bolotin says the volunteers intend to work with each patient in order to help find the right sport to focus on during the rehabilitation process. 

“Different sports suit different disabilities.”

Paralympians to help war-wounded heal from trauma
Wheelchair tennis player Sergey Lisov. Photo by Gabi Shifrin

The project also creates an opportunity to scout the next Israeli paralympic talent ahead of the 2028 Los Angeles Paralympic Games and the 2032 Brisbane Paralympic Games

“There is an opportunity here in all this tragedy,” says Bolotin.

Life beyond the disability

Bolotin is the professional director of the project. He lost his leg in a landmine accident in 1975, when he was a 20-year-old IDF soldier stationed in the Sinai Peninsula.  

A year later, he won the national swimming championship for disabled swimmers. In 1979, he won the European championship. Between 1980 and 2000 he took part in six Paralympic Games and won 11 medals.

Even when you consider that Bolotin had years of experience as a competitive swimmer as a teen, his rehabilitation and shift to paralympic swimming wasn’t a given. 

“I felt like it was the end of the world, I thought I would spend the rest of my life in a wheelchair.”

He admits that the psychological struggle of coming to terms with the reality of losing a limb is just as challenging as the physical one. He says it entails a period of mourning, which for some people lasts years.  

“In a way it’s even more difficult for those who were athletes before the injury. You cannot picture yourself playing basketball, for example, in a wheelchair.” 

Bolotin says your body image and your self image hit rock bottom when you suffer a life-changing injury.   

“When I was at the hospital, the army sent over an amputee to visit me; that’s when I realized there was life beyond the disability.”

That meeting was, in part, an inspiration for the current project. “There were always private initiatives, but nothing on this scale of organization,” he notes. 

“Sport is a great tool in helping to integrate [the disabled] back into society. For people with physical disabilities, there is no substitute for sport when it comes to rehabilitation.”

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