March 24, 2010
By Courtney Ratkowiak
A maize and blue wooden tablet hangs in Alon Mandel's bedroom, right next to a photo of the person who made it for him and who knows him best. It is written entirely in Hebrew, with "To my little brother" scrawled in big letters across the top and a sturdy block M painted in the lower left corner.
Alon is now a self-assured senior instead of a freshman in an unfamiliar country, but he still looks at the tablet every day. On it are 12 rules to live by while attending the University of Michigan, written by his older sister, Maya, a member of the Michigan women's swimming and diving team from 2000-04.
He jokes now that as soon as Maya chose to move from their hometown of Netanya, Israel, to swim at Michigan, his college decision was made for him. But he could not have imagined when he came to Ann Arbor in 2006 that his college swimming career would be marked by uncertainty and tragedy.
When times were tough, he often questioned his sister's rules but always tried to live by them. And at this week's NCAA Championships in Columbus, Ohio, the All-American, Big Ten champion and 2008 Olympian will compete in his final collegiate meet in a way that is only fitting -- with Maya traveling from Israel to cheer him on.
Maya's Rule #6: In a very demanding program like at Michigan, it is not fun to be around people that compete among themselves or who feel more sorry for themselves. Don't be like them. Be positive. Smile.
Alon visited Maya in 2003, during her senior year at Michigan, and was instantly impressed with Canham Natatorium. The image of the modern pool in Ann Arbor with the U-M Olympian swim caps hanging on the wall was burned into Alon's memory, providing a constant reminder of where he could swim if he trained hard for the next three years.
But as a freshman in college, it wasn't long before he found it difficult to follow Maya's advice to stay positive. He learned at the beginning of the season that he had been declared ineligible to swim with the Wolverines. That meant that on Oct. 14, 2006, instead of getting into the pool with his new teammates, Alon was escorted by team trainer Keenan Robinson down the street to the Intramural Sports Building pool.
"Well, this is where you're going to be training from now on," Robinson said, before handing the freshman a copy of the workout and leaving him standing on the pool deck.
In Israel, high school diplomas are issued the February after the student's graduation. But under NCAA rules, until the university received documented proof that he had completed high school, Alon could not train with his new team. For the first month of the season, as the other first-year swimmers acclimated to life in Canham Natatorium, Alon practiced alone in the Intramural Sports Building pool.
"I didn't feel like I was part of the team," Alon said. "I was the funny foreigner who speaks funny English with a funny accent and wants to touch everyone.
"No one really cared. No one knew who I was, like, 'Oh, a freshman, who cares?' It was a dark time for me."
Outside of the pool, even though Maya had primed him on some of the cultural differences between Israel and the United States, he also struggled to adapt to his new surroundings. He found Americans to be distant and formal, far different than the warm body language and physical nature of interactions in Israel.
"When he was training at the IM Building freshman year, I didn't know if he was going to make it," then-assistant swim coach and former U-M swimmer Fernando Canales said. "He was very mature world-wise, but he wasn't mature America-wise. Simple things would make him feel terrible. He'd say, 'I don't understand why these people behave this way.' "
But during those four weeks of ineligibility, Alon started to take Maya's advice to heart. Instead of continuing to see the IM pool as dreary, cold and ugly, Alon paid attention as Canales educated him on the rich history of the 80-year-old pool. He focused on completing every part of every workout, even though his coaches were not able to supervise his practices.
"It changed my personality quite a bit," Alon said. "Once I survived this time, I knew I loved Michigan enough not to quit; that this was the place for me."
His discipline from those weeks of solo training paid off that February at the Big Ten Championships when he placed 12th in the 100-yard backstroke and 14th in the 200-yard backstroke. After scoring points for his team and contributing to Michigan's second-place finish, he finally felt accepted by his teammates. Instead of a "funny foreigner," he was officially a Wolverine.
Maya's Rule #5: When it's ... hard, and it will be hard, find another person and put all your focus on them. Devote your energy to positive deeds (like helping them succeed) instead of focusing on your own miserableness.
Two years later, without realizing it, Maya found herself taking her own advice. It was 6:30 p.m. on August 6, 2008, less than a week before Alon's Olympic swimming debut at the Summer Olympics in Beijing, China. Her family was planning to watch Alon on television instead of making the trek to China, and so she was still at work when she received the phone call telling her to rush to her parents' home.
Once there, she learned that her father had passed away in a freak accident after falling from a ladder outside the house.
"When my dad died, we were all zombies," Maya said. "You don't really think clearly. You can't understand what just happened. It's all slow motion."
And in shock, the first thing on her mind was how Alon would react when hearing the news before the most important competition of his life.
"It was just -- I need to go," she said. "I need to be with him and meet him and cheer him on. It was so natural. There was no other choice. There was that gut instinct where you don't think clearly, you can't analyze things. You just know."
Without a Chinese visa, she called Israel's El Al Airlines at 9 p.m. and booked a seat on the 12:30 a.m. flight to Beijing. Her sister, Ya-El, started making arrangements for Maya to get a visa while she was still in the air. After the 10-hour flight, an Israeli Olympic Committee representative met her at the Beijing airport and took her to meet Alon.
By that time, Alon had already spoken with his mother, who told him she still wanted him to swim in the Olympics. During the next week, he coped with his father's death by pretending it hadn't happened and by isolating himself in order to concentrate on the races ahead.
"Those nine days were terrible," Maya said. "I was so stuck on my own, so far away from home, in Beijing with him. I didn't really like that city. I just felt alone. But it's not about you; it's about being with him right now."
Just five days after his father's sudden death, Alon represented Israel in the preliminary heat of the 200-meter butterfly. Though he didn't qualify for the semifinals, he broke the Israeli record in the event with a time of 1:59.27.
"One of the questions that really got me upset at the Olympics is when a journalist asked me, 'Do you think you could have swam a second faster, hadn't your dad passed away?'" Alon said. "He measured his death by the way I swam, you know? How much is that worth, second-wise? And I got really upset at him. I would like to believe I swam exactly the same way as I would if my dad hadn't passed."
Maya's Rule #12: It is the greatest privilege in the world to represent Michigan. Enjoy every moment and cherish it.
While competing in Beijing, Alon chose to wear two swim caps. On top, for everyone to see, he wore the swim cap for his country. But underneath, he wore a cap with the Michigan logo. Even with the university's rich history of Olympians -- 66 Michigan swimmers have competed at the Summer Olympics, winning 59 combined medals -- Alon was the first to compete while wearing a Wolverine swim cap.
And the reason for it was simple. When Maya told Alon as a freshman that representing Michigan was the greatest privilege in the world, he wasn't convinced. But after all that had happened since he had left Israel -- his struggles to be a part of the team freshman year, his complicated road to qualifying for the Olympics and his father's sudden death -- he found it comforting to wear a cap that reminded him of the university.
After once questioning why he was in Ann Arbor at all, Alon is now planning to stay for two extra years. Following graduation in May, where he will earn a degree in chemical engineering, he will continue training under Michigan coach Mike Bottom in preparation for the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. Even though he admits the best thing for an elite athlete is to train with no distractions, he can't picture staying in Ann Arbor without being a student. This fall, he is set to enroll as a graduate student in the School of Public Health, where he will study environmental health sciences.
"He's so committed to Michigan, he's so in love with this place," Canales said. "I do worry that some of our student-athletes don't understand some of the traditions. But Alon understands it, lives it, embraces it. His blood is blue."