Arizona Daily Star Monday, March 22, 2010
Arizona's Nimrod Shapira-Bar Or found out he was going to swim in the Beijing Olympics just five days before his first race. He finished 15th in the 200-meter freestyle and set a personal best in the 100. Nimrod Shapira Bar-Or isn't political, but he has a story to tell.
The Israeli stood on the pool deck of Hillenbrand Aquatic Center last week with plenty to worry about. Today, the freestyler will fly to Columbus, Ohio, where, starting Thursday, he will compete in five events at the NCAA men's swimming and diving championships.
For two years at The Bolles School, a prep palace in Jacksonville, Fla., Shapira Bar-Or, who is Jewish, lived with a man who would become his best friend.
Jowan Qupty is a Palestinian from Jerusalem. The two were acquaintances as kids, but didn't grow close until they shared an apartment together.
Qupty, who swims at Missouri, said that, back home, "people were amazed all the time" that a Jew and Palestinian could coexist.
That's a statement in itself.
"It's all a group of leaders," Shapira Bar-Or said. "And it's making both sides stress. "It shows how simple the situation is. If I can live with a Palestinian guy, I'm sure in our country we can live with a couple millions of Palestinians and Israelis together."
Qupty said politics didn't come up much in the house - "so, just in case, it wouldn't ruin our relationship."
You don't come to this spot in the Sports section - or talk to a UA swimmer - for geopolitical analysis. But, even in a small apartment in North Florida, a little peace is a great thing.
"It showed how simple the case was," Shapira Bar-Or said. "That two people can live together. All the war, all the money spent, for nothing."
Qupty will check in with his best friend via phone all week, when Shapira Bar-Or swims the 100, 200 and 500 freestyles, and the 4x100 and 4x200 free relays. He struggled last season after missing most of it with mononucleosis.
He doesn't want to be nervous this week; it'll ruin his swimming.
"It's kind of a secret," said the man whose first name recalls a biblical hunter. "It's a really, really simple thing. Don't stress about it."
If the 20-year-old sophomore sounds like the author of "Zen and the Art of Freestyle Swimming," it's because he learned the lesson in the most amazing way possible.
He knew at 12 he wanted to swim competitively, and that Israel's youth programs were no longer the way to improve. With a passport - his mom is British - Shapira Bar-Or moved to Bath, England, where he took an apartment on campus and attended high school.
He trained twice a day alongside record-holders and even lived by himself, cooking his own meals, just to swim faster. At 16, he moved home to Israel and quit school just to train.
Despite the training, he missed the cut for the 2008 Olympics - but then Israeli freestyler Max Javen tested positive for drugs.
Shapira Bar-Or was on vacation with his family, having not swam for eight days, when he was offered a spot on the team. His first race was five days away.
After a life of training, it would have been easy to stress out. He didn't. He worked in the pool, but not to exhaustion. He flew to China three days before the first race. He smiled a lot.
Then he finished 15th in the 200-meter freestyle and set a personal best in the 100.
"It taught me a lot, how swimming is in your head," he said. "You don't have to think about anything other than jumping in and having fun.
"Your body's like a machine. We train for six hours a day. Your body knows what to do. It's only the brain that can be like, 'Don't do it.'"
The result was astounding.
No stress, no anger.
"I had the best race of my life," he said. "I hope (this week) I'm going to have better races."