Mixed Bag of First-Week Results for Jewish Olympians; Local Coxswain Places Fourth

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Sam Ojserkis, the coxswain from Linwood, N.J., was one of just a handful of American Jewish Olympians in Rio de Janiero.

After months and years of training, it all came down to about five-and-a-half minutes for Sam Ojserkis and the U.S. men’s Olympic Eight rowing team.
Five-and-a-half disappointing minutes.
“We’re upset we couldn’t get on the podium, but today was not our day,” said Ojserkis in an email to the Jewish Exponent, after the U.S. came in a distant fourth and was never really in the race.
The race was won convincingly by Great Britain in 5:29.63. Germany took the silver, followed by the Netherlands, before the Americans crossed the finish line in 5:34.23.
The result left a hollow feeling for Ojserkis, the 5-foot-8, 122-pound coxswain from Linwood, N.J., one of just a handful of American Jewish Olympians in Rio de Janiero. He knows if he wants to try again at Tokyo in 2020, it’s a long ways off.
“The point of the Olympics is that there is no next year,” continued Ojserkis. “It’s every four years, so this result is disappointing. But there’s not much we can do now that the race is over.”
Ojserkis and company had to be feeling confident after the U.S., which finished second in its opening heat, came back a few days later to win the repechage second-chance heat, earning a spot in the six-team finals. But those hopes were dashed when the team lagged behind from the start, never getting within striking distance of the medal winners.
Ojserkis’ other Jewish teammate, Seth Weil, had similar frustrations, finishing seventh in the four-man sculls, though they did win the consolation “B” final.
“It hurts, but I’m the luckiest person in the world to even be able to attempt it,” said Weil, of Menlo Park, Calif. “There’s nothing more disappointing in a sport than underperforming. But that’s how it goes.”
It went much better, though, for two other Jewish Olympians, who took home gold.
Best known of those is gymnast Aly Raisman, who played an integral part in Team USA’s dominating gold medal-winning performance in the all-around competition.
The 22-year-old from Needham, Mass., followed that up by taking the silver behind teammate Simone Biles in the women’s all-around.
The other Jewish double gold medal winner is a story all his own.
In the pool at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia, 19-year-old Anthony Ervin won gold in the 50-meter freestyle. A few years later, the son of an Ashkenazi mother, whose father had both African American and Native American heritage, retired from the sport.
But after selling his gold medal, getting involved with drugs and nearly fatally overdosing on his Tourette syndrome medication, which he later admitted may have been a failed suicide attempt, Ervin returned to swimming. He placed fifth in the 50-meter freestyle event in London.
That set the stage for Rio where the 35-year-old Ervin pulled off the upset in his specialty, winning by a hundredth of a second over Florent Manaudou of France to become the oldest medal winner in an individual swimming event in Olympic history.
He previously earned gold for competing in one of the preliminary heats in the 4×100-meter relay, although he did not race with Michael Phelps in the final.
 He later said he was dedicating his victory to his 6-week-old daughter, whom he has yet to meet due to his training regimen.
“I wanted to tell her the American dream is for anyone, without exception,” an emotional Ervin told reporters afterward. “Whether you’re a boy or a girl, no matter what the shade of your skin or the shape of your eye, with no regard to who you love nor the beliefs you hold that give you peace and, for that matter, where you come from.
“It’s all contributed to what I’ve done — the good things, the bad things, the difficult things, the highs, the lows. It all stacks into building me into who I am now.”
The other Jewish Olympians to earn medals so far have been a pair from the Israeli judo contingent.
Among the men, Or Sasson took a bronze on Aug. 12, after beating an Egyptian in the first round who stirred controversy by refusing to shake his hand. Three days earlier, Yarden Gerbi won bronze in her weight class.
That gives Israel nine Olympic medals — the others coming in sailing and canoeing — in its history.
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