Friday, May 1, 2009

Simply "Oz"

Issue date: 5/1/09

By Anthony Fenech
Staff Reporter

Oz Lifshitz gushed with excitement just thinking about the upcoming Mid-American Conference Championships.

The Israel native now is two years into his stay in the United States, a country he never traveled to before.

"I'm more relaxed now," the sophomore jumper said. "It's much more peaceful here. People are more relaxed. And they drive slower here, too."

He may not know any better - yet.

A new world

Lifshitz's American dream began two Augusts ago, standing around the luggage claim at Detroit's Metropolitan Airport, looking for his coach.

"I was so enthusiastic, even after a 12-hour plane ride from Israel to New York," he said. "I didn't care. I was going to see my new coach and teammates ... and then I couldn't find my coach."

Men's track coach Jim Knapp remembers the moment well, standing alongside sophomore Jacob Korir in the middle of a crowd and holding a sign that said, simply enough, "Oz".

"I had seen pictures of him, but he wasn't obvious in a crowd," Knapp said. "We never saw him and he never saw the sign."

Surrounded by strangers in a brand new world, Lifshitz saw a man in the distance that resembled the coach he was coming to compete for, so he dialed Knapp's number.

"He said he saw me and I don't know if he really did, but we finally met up," said Knapp.

Jumping into Knapp's car en route to Mount Pleasant, a middle-aged American track coach talked to a mid-twenties Israeli track athlete through the help of Korir, who translated the conversation.

"It was interesting," Lifshitz said, laughing. "A long ride but we got to know each other quickly and I loved his enthusiasm."

Years earlier, such a move would have seemed unlikely. He grew up in Rishon LeZion, a city nestled between Tel-Aviv and the Mediterranean Sea. This is where he learned to compete in the sand and on the court, not the track.

In between spending his days in the water and playing soccer on the beach, Lifshitz was a tennis player, once ranked as the No. 8 player in the country as a 16-year-old.

But his passion for tennis was starting to fade. At this point, one of his high school gym teachers suggested he try high jumping.

"It wasn't serving my purpose," he said, referring to tennis. "I did one jump and fell in love with it."

Military experience

After high school, Israeli students flock to the military much the way American students flock to college. In the summer of 2003, Lifshitz was no different.

"In Israel, kids say, 'I'm going to be that soldier. I want to and I'm going to protect my family,'" he said. "It's not mandatory, but it's basically something that you do."

Serving in the Air Force for three years, he doesn't feel right elaborating on his time there - "It's just something that you carry on and do not talk about" - but he acknowledges that he was a changed person, a boy becoming a man, after he completed his first boot camp.

"It was such a relief and accomplishment," he said of finishing. "They make you think that you are nobody. When you come out, you are somebody."

It was near the end of his third year in the military when an Israeli national track coach came up to him and said they were going to turn him into a triple jumper.

In Israel, a country that holds just seven million people, there are three track facilities. In June 2007, he posted a second-place finish and personal-best distance in the triple jump, a distance which would qualify for NCAA Nationals in America.

"I started contacting coaches and seeing if I could come over to study and train," he said. After mostly misses - it was June and most teams are set by then - Knapp decided to make Lifshitz a part of the team.


Lifshitz has found immediate success since coming to America, taking second and fourth place as a freshman in last year's indoor and outdoor MAC Championships, respectively.

And he is doing it on an entirely different continent than his family, in an entirely different culture.

"I definitely miss my family," he said as he took off his sweatshirt, revealing the Star of David on his necklace. "Lets just say it's a consistent battle between myself and how I miss everyone back home."

His eyes watered up looking at the necklace - he said he was thinking about his grandmother, who passed away three weeks ago.

"She gave this to me and I'm going to give this season to her," he said.

The year of redemption, Lifshitz calls it, with his eyes set squarely on May 14 and the MAC Championship in Akron, Ohio.

"He is a very mature individual and he continues to grow," Knapp said, "And we see it every day."

Two years into his American journey, Lifshitz is excelling at both his studying - 3.5 GPA - and his training, the two reasons he jumped over.

"I'm so thankful that I got an opportunity to come here," he said. "Especially if it's for free."

Lifshitz said he is becoming 'Americanized' each and every day, whether it be waking up to snow or watching a different brand of football.

"Especially drinking," he said. "We don't chug, we sip. It's fun to chug and it's fun to do whatever, but our culture isn't like that."

It is just another step toward being 'Americanized.'

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