In 2003, Zachary Murez swam in the Pan-Am Maccabi Games in Santiago, Chile. As he won 10 medals, four of them gold, his sister Andrea, then too young to compete in the games, looked on with growing anticipation, waiting for the day when it would be her turn to participate. Now that day has finally arrived. In a step up from the local Maccabi Games, this summer the Murez siblings will compete in Israel in the Maccabiah Games, the Jewish international athletic games that are similar to the Olympics in caliber.
Zak and Andi, 20 and 17, are already accomplished swimmers on both the local and national levels. Zak holds five swim records from Venice High School, and his sister has broken every female Venice High record — twice. “It kind of became a personal goal,” Andi said.
In the Los Angeles City Finals last May, Andi not only set the city’s record for the 100 Freestyle, she also matched the time of the boy who won the same race minutes later. And she qualified for the U.S. Olympic trials in 2008.
Zak acknowledges that his sister, ranked first in Southern California, is the rising star in the family, “but as long as my times are faster [in the Maccabiah games], I’ll be fine,” he joked.
The siblings epitomize the student-athlete, both graduating high school on the national honor roll and at the top of their classes. Zak now swims at Yale, where he is studying computer science and is considering pre-med. Andi will enter Stanford in the fall and plans to major in human biology.
Sitting with their family on the outside patio of their grandfather’s condominium in Marina del Rey, overlooking the pool where the kids learned to swim, the Murezes reflected on how they got to this point.
Zak and Andi were not born water babies. “I used to be afraid of the water!” Andi said. “I think that we got into swimming because my grandfather swam.”
Grandfather Joe Murez, now 89, began swimming in pre-war Austria, within the confines of wooden enclosures in the Danube River. His son Jim, Andi and Zak’s dad, remembers Joe telling stories of how during Hitler’s annexation of Austria, Nazis would gather around the pool waiting to beat up the swimmers, knowing they were Jewish.
Joe swam at the Hakoah Vienna Sports Club — hakoah means “the strength.” “The club I swam at was part of the Maccabi movement, and while at the club, we received Zionist training,” Joe said. After swimming in numerous Maccabi races in Europe, Joe immigrated to America in 1938 and then swam in the U.S. Army. He is a big supporter of the Maccabi movement, has gone to many international games and is “very excited” for his grandchildren, who are continuing his legacy. Their father swam as well, but at a less competitive level.
While Zak and Andi exemplify a Southern Californian laid-back nature and are modest when speaking of the upcoming competition and of their many accomplishments, parents Jim and Melanie are very vocal cheerleaders. Melanie runs a foreign language translation company, Language.net. In addition to being a computer consultant and contractor, Jim has been running the Venice Farmers’ Market for more than 20 years.
“Today is the first day in weeks that they aren’t wearing their gear that says Yale or Stanford,” Zak said of his parents.
“We are very proud of our kids,” Melanie said in her defense, admitting that she owns, and frequently wears, a custom made T-shirt that reads, “Mom of City Record Holder in ...” that lists Andi’s best times and events.
“You are not allowed to take a picture of that!” Andi said, preempting a request.
As children, Zak and Andi did everything together, from karate to swimming, Hebrew school at Mishkon Tephilo in Venice, and even sharing a b’nai mitzvah when Andi was 12 and Zak was 15.
Jon Carroll, who has coached Andi for five years and Zak for three at the Santa Monica Swim Club Team, praised their skill and dedication.
“Andi is a unifying force,” Carroll said. “She has been very easy to coach, and we have developed a relationship of trust over the years. She has a competitiveness that belies her outward nature.”
He described Zak as a “cerebral person who looks at things very analytically,” but also functions as “the comic relief. Whether performing back-dives off the diving board that leave his back as red as a beet, or telling jokes that go over like a lead balloon, Zak is always self-effacing and good-natured,” Carroll said.
Although swimming is a top priority, both Murez kids take time to have a life outside the pool. Andi plays piano and was on the U.S.A. Scholastic All-American Team, while Zak has a more exotic array of hobbies; he likes to make sushi (although he only likes eating California rolls), and this summer, he is learning parkour, which his father refers to as “urban gymnastics.” Originating in France and perhaps most identifiable as appearing in the opening scene of the new James Bond movie, parkour is a form of acrobatic gymnastics done outside the traditional studio. “I can run up walls and back-flip off of them,” Zak said.
For her part, Andi is avoiding parkour. With 2012 Olympic dreams, she said, “I’m too worried about getting hurt for swimming.” Zak and Andi said they are also looking forward to taking their first trip to Israel.
“Going is just such an eye-opening experience,” Andi said, “and I’m excited to experience that.”
Olympic Gold Medalist Moves on to Maccabiah