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Athletics takes MU swimmer away from world of conflict

Friday, November 2, 2007 | 1:37 a.m. CDT; updated 9:02 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008
Before coming to MU, Gilad Kaufman swam on the Israeli national team.

COLUMBIA — It’s the middle of the night, and sergeant Gilad Kaufman, 20 at the time, of the 188th infantry battalion is standing guard in one of the watchtowers, looking out into the waves of grass surrounding the small village and military base in northern Israel.

Kaufman checks his binoculars and sees nothing, merely wooded area and grasslands, a scene he’s been protecting for hours.

Without warning, shots are fired at the base. In the distance Kaufman can see the small flashes coming out of the woodland.

He hears the bullets whiz by his head — enough warning to duck for cover. He finds safety in the watchtower, behind the small wall dividing him from the combatants.

He rises momentarily with his M-16, not knowing where, who or how many and fires instinctively into the distance.

“I didn’t think at all; I just shot. When someone is shooting at you, that’s what you do,” Kaufman said.

SWIMMING AT MU

In the middle of the afternoon, swimming practice is about to begin at the Mizzou Aquatics Center, and junior Gilad Kaufman, now 23, listens intently as coach Brian Hoffer gives instructions for the day and commentary about last weekend’s performance. The meeting ends, and Kaufman begins to congregate and joke with his teammates on the MU swimming and diving team.

Almost every group of players he approaches inevitably ends up laughing — with Kaufman as the instigator.

“He’s got a great sense of humor,” junior Byron Carlisle said.

Eventually, he reaches his swimming lane and dives in for a warm-up session. With a steady and smooth stroke, Kaufman works primarily on his freestyle and butterfly techniques, strokes that have brought him serious Big 12 and MU accolades. Kaufman swam the third leg of the 800 free relay team that broke the school record at the 2006 Big 12 Championship for the event.

THE FIREFIGHT ENDS

The combatants flee, and the two- to three-minute firefight comes to a halt. Kaufman and his comrades are sent to a room to be debriefed on the situation. Officers inform Kaufman the next morning that the combatants were most likely terrorists and that their exact numbers were unknown. All they tell him is that there was more than one. Kaufman, though, can only wonder what could have been. He suffers mentally from the crossfire long after the guns stopped firing.

“I had nightmares about the conflict for about a week and a half.”

The firefight in northern Israel is a fluke for Kaufman. His days are not usually that exciting, and his enemies are predominantly bartering landowners instead of camouflaged terrorists.

Kaufman works as a real estate marketer for the military, finding and negotiating for property around Israel. The Israeli Security Forces (ISF) use Kaufman’s skills in land speculation to build housing projects for officers. Kaufman only found himself in the firefight because while his primary job in the military is real estate, he and his battalion were regularly sent on security tours around the country which lasted from a week to a month. That particular tour was for two weeks.

The brief firefight is just one of many experiences for the Kaufman family. Born in Kfar Saba and raised in Netanya, both in central Israel, he grew up in a family with a strong military heritage. His grandfather, a Holocaust survivor, earned a medal of bravery for guiding his troops through a minefield. His father fought in several conflicts, and his older brother was a tank operator, a highly respected position in the Israeli army. Kaufman’s chances of reaching such heights in the military are limited, though.

His position in the general infantry rarely puts him in conflict situations, something about his duty he has no choice but to accept.

“Yeah, security was a bit boring, but sometimes you realize where you could be (fighting in combat), and it’s not that bad,” he said.

A “BREAKOUT SEASON”

“His first year was all right. His second was much better, but I think this is the year he really breaks out,” Missouri coach Hoffer said.

The 2007 season started off well for the Tigers with Kaufman performing at a high level. Swimming as the third leg, Kaufman played a crucial part in the first-place finish of the 400 freestyle relay event at the Big 12 Relays.

Performance hasn’t been the issue for Kaufman at MU, though. Life outside of the military complex gave Kaufman a big change. In Israel, Kaufman’s daily routine was regimented: swimming practice before work, work and swimming practice after work. His time at MU is distinctly less crowded. Besides practice and class, Kaufman decides what to do instead of listening to a higher-ranking military officer.

“You’re on your own routine, and it’s much less strict,” he said. “Everything is organized and coaches take care of you.”

A SACRIFICE FOR SWIMMING

He knows he belongs in the Elite Forces — the Israeli equivalent of the Marines. That’s where his friends are. That’s where his family had made its service the stories of heroes, but that’s exactly where he isn’t. Kaufman’s talent precludes him from doing as such. Because he is an athlete, joining the Elite Forces is not an option for Kaufman.

“The Elite Force is a full-time job, and sometimes you could be away for a week on a mission,” he said. “I would never have found time to swim.”

It would be impossible for Kaufman to continue swimming and competing if he were in the Elite Forces because of the time commitment.

“I could have chosen to (be in the elite unit). I wanted to, and if I wasn’t a swimmer, I would be a soldier,” he said.

Kaufman’s time in the general infantry is a trade-off.

“Swimming was very easy because it distracted me,” he said. “Physical pain is easier than mental pain.”

Swimming is not merely a hobby for Kaufman; it’s a sport in which he has excelled. He had already been named to the Israeli junior national team and netted three separate individual national championships for his country in 2002 and 2003.

“Everyone wants to go to America because of its the land of opportunity, and for me, it was a chance to swim and get an education for a job that would make me much more successful than in Israel,” he said.

Georgia Tech, Kenyon College (Ohio) and Missouri were his suitors. All three offered engineering programs, his desired major, and all three boasted strong swimming programs.

A NEW WORLD

As a junior, Kaufman can still readily see the differences between his old and new lives. No more monthly roadblocks in high-traffic areas. No more military tours in areas such as the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, and no more firefights.

The only hazardous condition he sees regularly is weather — and even that doesn’t faze him.

“When the tornado came a few years ago, I was walking down the street,” he said. “I mean, it wasn’t a big deal.”

A “FAMILY-LIKE” ATMOSPHERE

A year away from his release from the military, Kaufman decided once more to choose swimming over military service. He wanted to go to America to swim but choosing a college was difficult. Netanya is a city that practices kibbutz, an Israeli collectivism mind-set that emphasizes a form of socialism and community.

Kibbutz stresses family and communal well being, and only one of his three potential schools offered a relatively similar environment.

“Missouri offered a family-like atmosphere, something I was looking for in a school,” he said.

His three-year military almost finished, Kaufman had decided where his new home would be. He had plans to leave for Missouri almost immediately after he was released and start a new life in America. Two weeks after that release, he found himself in Columbia, 6,466 miles away from his home and his battalion. A new world presented itself to Kaufman, a world he was willing to acclimate to.

His choices had taken him this far, and even on retrospection, he felt comfortable with them.

“Sometimes I think about what it would have been like (in the army),” he said, “but I feel OK with my choice of coming here.”


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