LONDON — Entering the wheelchair tennis competition at the 2012 London Paralympics, Israeli Noam Gershoni was a medal hopeful.
The former Apache helicopter pilot did not disappoint – he defeated American David Wagner in the finals 6-3, 6-1 to earn a gold medal.
Meanwhile, Koby Leon won a silver medal in men’s individual H1 time trial, a road cycling event.
Both men were wounded while serving in the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) and were rehabilitated in Beit Halochem facilities, which provides support to disabled veterans.
During the Second Lebanon War, Gershoni was severely wounded in his spinal cord, as well as both his arms and legs when the helicopter he was flying crashed.
He suffered multiple fractures and was evacuated to Haifa’s Rambam Hospital. After three weeks he was transferred to Tel Hashomer’s rehabilitation centre near Tel Aviv where he was hospitalized for the next six months. Even after his release, he continued going to rehab on a daily basis for an entire year. Four years later, he still frequents the centre twice a week for physiotherapy sessions.
Gershoni, 28, first tried wheelchair tennis at the Beit Halochem facility in Tel Aviv four years ago. “I began playing wheelchair tennis for the fun of it, but didn’t think for one moment I’d make it to such high levels,” he said.
Playing in a wheelchair, Gershoni is categorized as a “quad,” which includes players with varying degrees of severe disability. His breakthrough came during this past year when he beat 2008 Beijing Paralympics silver medalists Boaz Cramer and Shraga Weinberg, three times. He also won an international tournament held in Israel and made it to the finals in three other tournaments.
“Noam stood out from the very first of his training sessions and it was clear we were dealing with a very talented young man with a quick grasp and understanding of the game and a very high intelligence,” said his coach, Nimrod Bichler. “He trains hard three times a week, works out at the fitness hall in addition to his physiotherapy sessions, and improves constantly.”
Recently, he experienced his first success abroad in the Czech Republic, when he won the singles and doubles tournaments, partnering with a French player.
He defeated the world No. 1-ranked player last spring, and going into the London Paralympics, he was ranked among the top four players in the world.
* * *
Koby Leon was serving with the IDF’s “Egoz” Special Operations Unit in southern Lebanon when he was critically wounded in the winter of 1996. An explosive device killed two other soldiers and left him a paraplegic.
Sixteen years later, he’s 35 years old, married with two children and is well established in life. As he did during his rehabilitation process, he shut himself off from outside influences to prepare for the London Paralympics in the hand bike competition.
Leon woke up at 4 a.m. every morning to work out for an hour on his treadmill at his home in Kfar Vitkin. From there, he continued to the Wingate Institute for a two- or three-hour training practice on his hand bike, followed by two hours cycling in Wingate’s oxygen room.
If he did well at practice, he got a pampering massage from his coach Meir Carmon.
In the afternoon, Leon spent time with his two children, Ro’i, 6, and Noa, 4, managing their household, alongside his wife, Yafit.
Leon’s life changed on Dec. 24, 1996 during a mission in southern Lebanon.
“My spine was hit,” he said. “[I am paralyzed] from my upper torso downward, and one of my arms is screwed up, too.”
He spent two weeks at Rambam Hospital before being transferred to a rehabilitation centre in Tel Hashomer. When he was released, the doctors told him, “There’s nothing that can be done. Sit in a wheelchair, take a pill every morning and come to terms with it.”
Accepting reality was the last thing Leon had in mind. He set off to travel around the world, visiting the United States, as well as countries in Africa and South America.
“At first, I travelled with an army buddy from my squad,” he remembered. “We got to places where the locals had never even seen a wheelchair before and they wanted to touch me. The amazing thing was that instead of other hikers distancing themselves from us, people just wanted to join us. This wasn’t an obvious thing at all, because when we climbed up a volcano someone had to carry me, or crossing a river they had to lift me so I wouldn’t drown.
“So both Israelis and foreigners, total strangers, all wanted to be a part of my experience. I didn’t really understand them at first, but it really gave my ego a boost,” he said.
He recalled one particularly special moment.
“I was at a pub, in the middle of nowhere, in a wheelchair and everyone wanted to be with me because of who I was,” he said. “It had nothing to do with the wheelchair or with what I had been through or done.”
That led him to realize that people can relate to others from all walks of life based on their attitude.
“There are lots of hardships but so what? Everyone’s got his own problems. You need to say, ‘This is what there is, let’s go with the flow,’ instead of saying: ‘What am I going to do?’” he said.
However, Leon soon realized the high he experienced during his travels was going to come crashing onto the rocks of reality once he was back home in Israel. He found out that what people were willing to do for him under extreme circumstances was not necessarily happening when he went back to his routine.
“I studied computer sciences.” he said, “but when I tried finding a job, I realized it was very difficult. I don’t want to say it was because of the wheelchair, but people are reluctant to employ disabled people. I’m sure it’s not out of malice, and perhaps I would have done the same in their situation, but the reality is that they don’t call you back for interviews, or they say thanks, but no thanks.”
When he was 27, he achieved two milestones: he finally found a job with a high-tech company, and he married a physiotherapist who had encouraged him to get involved in sports activity and in hand bikes.
Leon added a third milestone in London.