A lost tribe of Hebrews would have been easier for the incredulous rabbi to accept than this delegation of Israeli swimmers claiming to be from West Liberty State College in the remotest hills of West Virginia. "How did you get here?" he wanted to know. "What are you doing in West Virginia?"
The four Israelis—Avraham Melamed, Moshe Gertel, Yoel Kende and Danny Stern—and their 250-pound Irish Catholic coach, Tom Grall, had come to Steubenville, Ohio seeking funds for the impoverished student-athletes. They tried to explain. They had heard the questions many times before, increasingly of late as the Israelis have made West Liberty one of the favorites in next week's NAIA championships.
"We came to West Liberty to swim and to get an education," said Melamed, the group's spokesman and, at 27, conceivably the world's oldest world-class butterfly swimmer.
The rabbi gave the Israelis his blessing but nothing material.
"I felt sorry for him," says Grall. "It had to look like a setup, a hoax. O.K., it's enough they are wandering Jews swimming for an obscure West Virginia college, but my well-preserved kibbutzniks are not exactly college-age kids. And I'm not your neat little swimming coach."
Melamed, the first of the Israelis to find his way to West Virginia, arrived at West Liberty as the result of what college presidents like to refer to as cultural-exchange programs. Grall calls it recruiting. Yet to this day he is not sure who recruited whom.
Melamed and Grall met by a pool, of course, the huge municipal pool in Turin. Grall was in Italy as the assistant coach of the U.S. men's team for the 1970 World University Games; Melamed was a member of the Israeli team. For years he had tried to get a swimming scholarship in the U.S. but had no takers. The problem, increasingly, was his age—specifically, the NCAA rule which states that an alien student-athlete loses a year of eligibility for each year of organized competition after his 19th birthday. By this formula, Melamed had minus-three years of eligibility when he met Grall.
Nonetheless, Grall said he would see if Springfield College, his alma mater, would give Melamed a full ride. In passing, he mentioned West Liberty and the benefits of being educated there—specifically that the NAIA does not penalize aliens. But although tuition would be free, room and board, alas, would not.
Back home, Grall learned that Springfield wasn't able to help Melamed. And so that was that, or so Grall thought—until he got a long-distance call. It was Melamed, announcing that he had arrived. "Arrived where!" asked Grall. "In Pittsburgh," said Melamed. "Why?" asked Grall. "I've decided to go to West Liberty," said Melamed. "Don't move," said Grall, who informed his president that they had a new freshman and then left for Pittsburgh to escort him into the hills.
"It was easier getting from Ramat Yohanan to Pittsburgh than it was to get from Pittsburgh to West Liberty," says Melamed.
All roads do not lead to West Liberty, but one that does, Route 88, is called the Cow Path to Culture. The Israeli was taken on a more scenic route, a roller-coaster ride over a ribbon of cracked concrete, with no guardrails to prevent a car from taking a shortcut down a ravine. Melamed kept his nose pressed to the car window, looking for the bright lights. Instead, he saw farms, strip mines and hairpin curves.
They came at last to West Liberty. "It was not what I was expecting," says Melamed. "Coach described it as a small town. But a small town in the States, I thought, would be 100,000 people—50,000, at least."
What he found was a town of 500, 450 of whom must be in perpetual hiding. As far as bright lights go, there's the Boston general store; Max' one-chair barbershop; the post office; the Hilltop-per Inn, a beer joint; and a seemingly abandoned church. Melamed also expected to swim against Indiana and Yale because Grall had told him West Liberty swam in the nationals—he had sort of forgotten to mention it was the NAIA nationals. "I was what you call wiped out," says Melamed.
For his part, Grall knew he had got an old swimmer, but what he didn't know was that Melamed was both old and wheezing. Melamed said his asthma was of no importance, but Grall took him to a specialist in Greenville, N.C. who was dumfounded to discover that his patient was a swimmer, as an asthmatic's lung capacity is limited.
"It is a bad problem," says Melamed's Olympic roommate, Yoel Kende. "In Mexico City he slept under the bed because it was the only place he could breathe."
Melamed has shown he isn't damaged goods. He has a 3.89 grade average and takes both general and organic chemistry, as he wants to become a doctor. He has not lost a race in two seasons and is the defending NAIA champion in the 100-and 200-yard butterfly, events in which he has personal bests of 52.3 and 1:57.6. Largely due to him and his compatriots, West Liberty won the West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference title this year with an 11-3 record.
In the past 15 months three other Israeli swimming champions have made the terrifying trip from Pittsburgh. One, Moshe Gertel, swims the 200 and 500 freestyle, and has won 26 of 28 races. He, too, is considered elderly, being 25.
"Age is an American myth," says Melamed. "Americans are prematurely through with swimming at 21 because they are finished with college."
Gertel, however, broods about his age. "They say I'm over the hill," he says morosely. "I hope I am just beginning to make the climb. Who knows, perhaps everybody is right and I am wrong."
The other two recruits are mere striplings; breaststroker Kende, who was born in Rumania and is a "Tel Aviver," is 23, as is Stern, who swims the individual medley. Kende has more potential, having personal bests of 1:01.5 for 100 yards and 2:18 for 200 and, like Melamed, is unbeaten in the U.S.
With the advent of the Israelis, swimming is on the point of eclipsing football as the No. 1 sport at West Liberty, and the football team has had two straight undefeated seasons. This is just fine by the school's president, James Chapman, who is known in West Liberty as the man who led the Israelites to the promised land. "Winning is important to our students," he says. "Not in a rah-rah sense, but in a very practical way. We are not an elite school but a college directed toward first-generation students, people who come from families of limited educational background. As everyone knows, this area has been depressed, impoverished for generations, and it is important for the student body to be able to identify with success. When I hired Grall, all I expected of him was that he would keep the pool clean. Now he may bring home a championship."
No wonder then that Chapman has aided and abetted Grall in recruiting the Israelis. To his credit, however, Chapman's interest in them has continued. When he discovered that the quartet was living in a rundown apartment in Wheeling, 15 miles away, because they couldn't afford to stay in a dorm, Chapman told Grall to move them on campus. "We'll find the money somewhere," he said.
The search led to the rabbi; to Robert Briner, the executive vice-president of the Dallas Chaparrals; to Harold Zimman, who owns a Boston printing company and is vice-president of the Sports for Israel Committee, which, in turn, donated $1,500. Last week the B'nai B'rith Sport Lodge of New York City chipped in another $1,000, so the swimmers' room-and-board bill is now only $2,500 in arrears.
Grall, who always wears short-sleeved sweat shirts inside out, is himself acquainted with hard times. Although he quadruples in brass as a phys ed professor, swimming coach, assistant track coach and defensive coordinator of the football team, he makes less than $10,000 a year.
But lack of money is only one of Grall's problems, the others being when to peak his swimmers and his weight. In regard to the latter, his opening sally on entering the pool is, "How's the water level? Low? Don't fill it, I'll jump in." And he never runs, for, as he says, "From the back I look like two pigs fighting behind a blanket."
Recently all three problems converged. West Liberty had an away meet scheduled with another NAIA powerhouse, Clarion (Pa.) State—a four-hour trip. There was a report of a storm. The Clarion coach called Grall, asking him to leave early, five hours early if necessary, but not to cancel.
"I would say Clarion wants us, wouldn't you?" Grall told his team. "Oh, boy, do they want us. They want to whip our butts. But then everyone is aiming to do that. Everybody peaks for West Liberty now."
But West Liberty doesn't peak for everybody. Would Grall point for Clarion? No, he would not. There was a very practical reason which dictated this decision—West Liberty was going to have to drive to Clarion.
"When you're poor, you travel poor," says Grall. "My idea of heaven is to have enough money to hire a Greyhound bus." Instead, Grall led a three-car caravan for five hours over slippery mountain roads, exceeded his $40 travel budget by $4 and lost the meet.
Later, after prying himself loose from under the steering wheel, Grall sighed and said, "I'm over the border of obesity. I'm afraid to get on a penny scale for fear they'll tell me to get off and come back when I'm alone. Oh, this weight is really painful on airplanes. I don't sit down, I just aim my backside and overflow."
Then, as if suddenly struck by a brilliant thought, he turned to Melamed and said, "Do you have any divers in Israel? We really need one who knows how to fall off a board."
"We got one who is pretty good," said Melamed, "but he's also pretty old."
"Can you get him here in time for the nationals?" said Grall.