From left, silver medalist Teresa Perales of Spain, gold medalist Sarah Rung of Norway and bronze medalist Inbal Pezaro of Israel took the top three spots in the women's 200m freestyle at the London Paralympic Games.
Swimmer Inbal Pezaro put Israel on the podium – twice – in the first days of the London 2012 Paralympics, winning bronze medals in the 50-meter freestyle and 200-meter freestyle events.
“I’m happy to have given Israel a lucky start to the Games,” Pezaro said upon winning her first bronze medal in the 50-meter freestyle with a time of 37.89 seconds.
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Israeli officials were quick to congratulate her.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu wrote on his Facebook page: “A good start for the Israeli delegation, and good luck to the rest of the athletes later on.”
And Culture and Sport Minister Limor Livnat announced that Pezaro “proved, and not for the first time, that she is a tremendous winner and an ambassador of Israeli sport.”
After a dismal zero-medal count by Israel’s Olympians, the two big podium appearances by Pezaro in the first three days of competition – and another bronze medal from swimmer Izhak Mamistvalov – gave local sports fans something to cheer about.
It may be coincidental that Pezaro was among the first Israeli athletes to compete in the 2012 competition, but her splash at the London Games has infused the 25-strong Israeli Paralympic delegation with a sense of hope.
“The 50-meter freestyle race was a great surprise. Inbal broke her personal record by over a second and won a medal in an event not considered her strongest. The win took the pressure off the entire Israeli delegation at the Paralympics,” Roni Bolotin, head of Israel’s Paralympic Committee, told ISRAEL21c.
She made a similar opening four years ago at the Beijing Paralympics, winning three silver medals in the first days of the contest and setting an Israeli record in the 100-meter freestyle with a time of 1:12.57 minutes.
Altogether, the 25-year-old swimmer, paralyzed from the waist down, held five Paralympic medals going in to the 2012 Games.
Pezaro has two other races later this week – 100-meter freestyle and 100-meter breast stroke – and could very well step back onto the podium.
“I’m going to London as a frontrunner but there’s no guarantee I’ll return with the same title,” she told Israeli news website Ynet before setting out to the Paralympic Games. “The competition is great. There are new swimmers on the scene who are really strong and as such it’s going to be tough. I’ll do my best to reach the podium again.”
Described as modest, good-natured, happy and outspoken, Pezaro is widely considered a role model for all Israelis.
In an interview prior to her London outing, she was asked about her disability. “I’m not suffering from any disability,” she answered.
Pezaro was born in 1987 on Kibbutz Yizrael. At birth she suffered spinal complications that left her paralyzed in her lower limbs. At the age of five she began practicing sports at the ILAN Center in Haifa. By the age of 12, Pezaro was competing in international swimming competitions.
Though she was given exemption from military service, she volunteered to serve and was certified as a swimming instructor for an elite unit.
Upon discharge, the former Israeli Sportswoman of the Year moved to Haifa to train for the Paralympics.
In Athens, she won silver and bronze medals. In Beijing, she topped that with three silver medals.
“For me, swimming is everything. It’s a part of me,” she said. “My first Paralympic experience was intense. I felt super happy.”
Though she had her eyes set on London, Pezaro knew her sporting career wasn’t going to last forever. So, following Beijing, she began studying biochemistry at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology.
In the run-up to London, Pezaro took a year off from her studies to train. But the Technion awaits her upon her return.
“After three Paralympic Games, I knew that I needed to plan. I’ll dedicate at least the first two years to my studies,” she told Ynet. “I want to expand to develop other aspects of my life as well.”