The Golden Boy
Strength comes in many forms. There are the physically strong – you see them building up their muscles in the gym, or jogging early mornings along our streets; there are the spiritually strong, who maintain faith in G-d despite hardship and tragedy; there are those who display exceptional emotional strength, keeping it together during personal crises when lesser mortals would fall apart.
But, however one measures strength, Shai Haim is a strong, strong man.
Shai is one of the forty-three handicapped Israeli athletes who left this week for Beijing to participate in the Para-Olympics, which run Sunday through Sep. 16th. Among the sports in which Israel will compete are tennis, swimming, kayaking, sailing, horseback riding, ping-pong, archery, air rifle – and basketball. Shai is one of the 12 players on Israel’s wheelchair-basketball delegation, selected from among the more than 200 players who compete at several Beit Halochem facilities around the country. Shai was named the outstanding player on his Herzliya squad, earning him a spot on the national team, the first Israeli team to qualify for the Para-Olympics in sixteen years. Over the next two weeks, they will face competing teams from the United States, Brazil, England, China, Germany, Russia and Sweden.
Shai’s saga begins in the army, where he served in an elite anti-terrorist unit in the Nachal Brigade. Shai was the beefiest, toughest kid in the outfit, with huge forearms and a barrel-chested physique. His fellow soldiers joked that they liked to stand behind him during missions, so he would block incoming fire from hitting them. Then would later confess, “It was a bitter joke.”
On Sep. 30, 2002, Shai’s unit was part of a raid on Hamas headquarters in Shechem’s infamous casbah, where they uncovered a treasure-trove of information on that group’s terrorist activities, including lists of terrorists and planned attacks against Israel. In the midst of their mission, the unit came under fire from snipers in a nearby building. Shai was hit first and slumped to the ground. His best friend in the unit, our son Staff Sgt. Ari Weiss, rushed to his side to help him and was shot in the process; Ari was killed instantly by a bullet that punctured his lung.
But Shai survived. He was rushed to a field hospital in Shavei Shomron, and then to Tel Hashomer. The bullet had lodged near his spine, and he underwent emergency surgery. Just before going into the operating room, before he lost consciousness, Shai scribbled on a piece of paper, “My friend Ari was killed; please be sure I get to his funeral.” Surgeons removed Shai’s kidney and saved his life, but they could not remove the bullet or repair the damage to his nervous system. After 48 hours, the doctors announced that Shai would live, but he would never walk again.
Lesser people might have succumbed to depression, or resignation, but Shai refused to do so. He had always been an athlete, excelling in handball, and one of his first questions to his therapist was whether he would have to forego all sports. “Not if you don’t want to,” he was told, “you – and only you – will determine what you can do from now on.”
That was all Shai needed to hear. He spent four months in intensive rehab at Tel Hashomer, working out strenuously with weights, strengthening his upper body and learning how to ride and glide in his wheelchair. Most of all, he maintained a hopeful attitude and positive disposition, impressing his doctors and anyone who came to see him. One rabbi from Florida, who had read about Shai and came to visit him, told me afterwards, “I entered his room sad, and filled with anxiety over his situation; I left uplifted, with a renewed belief in the resilience of the human spirit.”
Shai decided there would be no boundaries in his life. A year after the shooting, he married his girlfriend Tamar, the equally strong-willed kibbutz native who had helped nurse him back to health and encouraged his will to excel. At his wedding – at which I had the great merit to officiate – Shai stunned the crowd by “walking” down the aisle in specially-constructed, battery-operated leg braces worn under his pants, which alternately lifted his legs up and down as if he was walking under his own power. When the last blessings were recited, Tamar held on to his arm as he “lifted” his right foot and broke the glass.
The glass wasn’t the only thing broken that night; every heart melted as Shai invited all his fellow residents from the handicapped ward to join him in a special “dance of the wheelchairs,” showing them that they, too, could dance at a wedding and be full participants.
Shai and Tamar then left for 3 months touring in New Zealand and Australia. “Every soldier has a post-army tiyul (trek),” said Shai, “and I won’t be cheated out of mine!” They hiked the mountains, snorkeled in the Great Barrier Reef, and even rode bikes, Shai using a special hand-driven cycle that attracted oohs and aahs wherever they went. “That trip proved to Shai beyond a doubt that he could go anywhere and do anything he set out to do,” said Tamar.
Shai became a regular at the Bet HaLochem in Tel Aviv, an amazing facility that cares for our wounded soldiers and offers workshops in arts and crafts, music, computers, even dance. Shai played tennis and badminton there, and then decided to try basketball. For those who have never seen a game, wheelchair basketball is a no-holds-barred, rough-and-tumble affair, using the basic rules of regular basketball. Players often crash into each other, chairs flipping over, players sprawled on the floor. No one helps them – that’s the way they want it. They pick themselves up, get back in the chair and right back in the game.
“That’s my motto in life,” says a smiling Shai, “no complaints, no whining – just get back in the game.”
Shai will be accompanied to Beijing – he is determined to climb the Great Wall while he is there! – not only by Tamar, but also by their new daughter Roni Bracha. Born two months ago, after twelve in-vitro treatments, she is perhaps the most miraculous achievement in an unending stream of wondrous events in Shai’s life. He wouldn’t think of going to China without her – “where I ride, she rides,” says Shai, cradling his massive arms around her as he holds her in his lap.
All of us will be cheering this week for our athletes, but I’ll be saving the loudest cheers for Shai Haim. He embodies his name – which means, literally, “the gift of life” and, win, lose or draw, he wears an eternal gold medal around his neck.
By Stewart Weiss, Jerusalem Post, September 7, 2008.