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Jewish Journal

Southland Olympians go for the gold

By Lee Barnathan

July 31, 2008 | 12:07 am

Swimmer Dara Torres

Swimmer Dara Torres

Several Jewish Olympians due to compete in Beijing are either from Southern California or have ties to the area. If any of them medal in their respective events, they will join a long list of Jewish Angelenos who have enjoyed the spotlight of the Olympic awards ceremony.

Perhaps the most famous Jewish competitor with ties to the Southland this year is swimmer Dara Torres, who is competing in an unprecedented fifth Olympiad at age 41.

Don't let the surname deceive you. Torres' father is Jewish, and she formally converted before marrying her second husband, an Israeli surgeon. She attended Westlake School for Girls before it merged with a boys' school to become Harvard-Westlake in Studio City and swam for coach Darlene Bible, who's still at the school as a swimming coach and athletic director.

Torres already has nine Olympic medals to her credit, including three golds for swimming on freestyle relay teams in Los Angeles in 1984, Barcelona in 1992 and Sydney in 2000. Sports Illustrated does not predict she will win a medal in the 50-meter freestyle this time, but Time lists her as the No. 2 of 100 Olympic athletes to watch.

Jason Lezak, born in Irvine, has four Olympic medals. He was on the same gold-medal-winning medley relay team as Peirsol, and won gold as a member of the medley relay team in Sydney. He also has a silver medal from swimming on the 4x100 freestyle relay in Sydney and a bronze in the same event from Athens.

The pool has been good to Jewish Olympians. Lenny Krayzelburg, who was born in Ukraine but lived in Los Angeles and attended USC, won four gold medals, mostly for backstroke. Anthony Ervin was born in Burbank, attended William S. Hart High in Santa Clarita and won a gold medal in the 50 freestyle in Sydney, as well as silver as part of the 4x100 freestyle relay.

Marilyn Ramenofsky isn't as well known, but she was a world record holder in the 400-meter freestyle and won silver in that event at the 1964 Tokyo Games. Five years later, she earned her undergraduate degree in Botany-Biology from Pomona College in Claremont.

And who can forget Mark Spitz, who won seven gold medals and set world records in each event in 1972 at Munich? Spitz, who was born in Modesto and grew up in Sacramento, now lives in Los Angeles.

Marathon runner Deena Kastor, 35, won bronze in the women's marathon at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. While the Agoura Hills native won the Olympic trial this time, Sports Illustrated is not predicting a medal for her in China.

Cyclist Adam Duvendeck, who was born in Santa Barbara and lives in Long Beach, appeared in the 2004 Games in the team sprint. (His passion for the Olympics is so great he had the rings tattooed on his back after qualifying for the 2004 team.) Duvendeck is a five-time U.S. national champion and had the top American finish in the 2008 World Cup. He fared well at the 2007 Pan American Games, where he took silver in the team sprint and fourth in the keirin.

Soccer midfielder Benny Feilhaber grew up playing the game on the streets of Rio de Janeiro before his family left Brazil for the United States when he was 6. Feilhaber, 23, enjoyed four years playing for Northwood High School in Irvine, and made the team at UCLA in 2003 was a walk-on. He scored silver for the United States in the Maccabiah Games in 2004, and after playing for the U.S. National Team in 2007 he moved on to Derby County in the English Premier League. Sports Illustrated expects Feilhaber to provide depth for the United States in central midfield at Beijing.

Other past Jewish Olympians with ties to Los Angeles include:

  • Sam Balter -- A UCLA basketball player who was the only Jew on the gold-medal-winning team at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

  • Lillian Copeland -- She threw the discus at the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam, winning silver. Four years later, she won gold in her hometown as a USC student, one of 18 Jews from around the world to medal.

  • Sasha Cohen -- the only winter Olympian with local ties — she was born in Westwood — finished second in figure skating at Torino in 2006.

  • Jackie Fields -- A boxer who won gold in the featherweight division in 1924 in Paris. The 1939 movie "The Crowd Roars" is about his Olympic triumph. He died in Los Angeles.

  • Mitch Gaylord -- He was the first American gymnast to score a perfect 10 in the Olympics, helping the men's team win the gold in 1984. He also won silver on the vault and bronze on the rings and the parallel bars. Gaylord and Torres were two of nine Jewish Olympians to medal in 1984.

  • Brad Gilbert -- He might be better known now as Andre Agassi's former tennis coach, but he attended Pepperdine and won a bronze in 1988 in Seoul.

  • Steve Seymour -- He won a silver medal for the javelin throw in London Olympics in 1948. Track and field historians consider him America's original master technician of the event, because he studied the Finns, who dominated the event at the time. He died in Los Angeles.

  • Kerri Strug -- She made the vault that clinched gold for the U.S. gymnastics team in 1996 in Atlanta, but before that she won a bronze medal as a member of the 1992 team in Barcelona. She later attended UCLA.


Nate Bloom contributed to this report.

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