Sept. 9, 2013
By Jon Cooper
There are currently three swimmers on the Georgia Tech Swimming and Diving team from the state of Israel — freshman freestyler Dan Cohen Solal, and sophomore distance freestyler Yuval Safra on the men’s side and sophomore freestyler Efrat Rotsztejn with the women’s team.
Were it not for Shilo Ayalon, that number and their eagerness to live more than 6,000 miles from home might not be as great.
“I’m proud to say it all started with me,” said Ayalon, with a laugh. “I was the first one there.”
It’s not the only first with which he is linked. Ayalon graduated with six school records — three of which he still holds, and a fourth still residing in Israel, courtesy of countryman Gal Nevo. He also is one of 10 Yellow Jackets to take home gold in the ACC Championships.
It is for that greatness in the pool as well as his leadership out of it and the example he set in both places from 2000 through 2003 that he is being inducted into the Georgia Tech Athletics Hall of Fame on Oct. 18. The Class of 2013 also includes Kelly Campbell, Kele Eveland, Andria King, Richard Lewis, Troy Matteson and Billy Williamson.
Ayalon, who resides in Israel, found out he was going in via e-mail, which had arrived in the middle of the night (Israel is seven hours ahead).
“It was a quiet joy kind of thing,” he said. “It wasn’t an ‘Awesome, I won the lottery!’ kind of feeling. You kind of feel humbled by it. Joining all those great football players and other athletes is pretty awesome.
“I heard it takes like seven years to be eligible for the Hall of Fame and I just lived my life and all of a sudden the call came,” he added. “It’s not something I kept in back of my head and waited for. It was just a nice thing to find out at the end of the day.”
Ayalon may have forgotten about the Hall of Fame, but those around him didn’t forget him or his worthiness of induction.
“It was going to be on his résumé at some point in time,” said Seth Baron, former Georgia Tech Swimming & Diving coach from 1998 through 2005, and Ayalon’s liaison when he came to the U.S. “He did some miraculous things for the Institute and quite frankly put the swim team on the map.”
Brought together by former Auburn swimming great and Israeli Olympian Yuav Brouck, who met Baron when he was a graduate assistant coach at Auburn, Ayalon and Baron, first met at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.
“The first time I met Shilo was when he literally got off the plane, when he was coming to Atlanta,” Baron recalled. “Here was a young man, barely 18 years of age, we had never met, he’s in a foreign country. We were both probably a little nervous. I wasn’t sure what I was getting into, he wasn’t sure what he was getting into. But the minute I saw him swim at one of our first practices I knew we had something, at least from an athletic standpoint — very special. He had what we refer to in the swimming world, as a very pure stroke. He had a lot of the advanced fundamentals of an athlete that could clearly excel.”
Once he got his feet wet he did just that. He earned All-ACC status and honorable mention All-America status his final three years. As a sophomore, he finished 11th in the 1,650 (the mile) freestyle at the NCAAs, was named to the ACC’s 50th Anniversary Team as a junior, then, saving his best work for his senior year, won the ACC Championship in the 1,650 and setting a new conference record, at 14:47.99.
That race became the signature of his career.
Winning a conference championship and doing so in record time would normally be enough. But in this race, it only scratched the surface. The race featured Ayalon’s arch-rival, the late Fran Crippen of Virginia (tragically, he drowned in an open-water race in 2010).
“I was kind of the underdog. My status back then was kind of always the bridesmaid, never the bride,” he recalled. “I always finished second in whatever event I competed in. It also was my last race at Georgia Tech. I was behind for about 1,550 in the race, way behind, a few body-lengths. Somehow I found the strength to pull through and win that race. It was pretty emotional. It was a cool way to go out. My teammates were jumping up and down. It was a fun day. At the end of that day, Georgia Tech finished the highest it ever has in the ACC Championship in swimming. We were second. That was kind of a two-fold happiness.”
The exhilaration of the race and the closing kick by Ayalon on the final lap is something Baron will never forget.
“Shilo was approximately three, maybe four seconds behind Fran with 200 yards to go,” he recalled. “He flipped and turned on the after-burners and he ended up winning that race by a good four or five seconds. So he not only made up the three or four seconds but went on to win it by a good four or five seconds. The place went crazy. For 1,400 yards it looked like Fran had it under control and was going to win it and then Shilo just came out of nowhere the last 200 yards, like he was fresh, like he hadn’t swum a single minute. The energy in the room after that race was just unbelievable. What it did to elevate our athletes and put them in a different mindset was just amazing.”
Inspired by the fantastic finish, the Jackets turned it on and finished a program-best second at the ACC Championship.
Shortly thereafter at the NCAAs, he again set a program-best, finishing fourth in the mile and earning All-America honors for the third straight year.
Upon his graduation, he went back home to Israel, where he fulfilled his three-year obligation in the service, with the Israeli Space Engineering Division, NATA. He still lives there with his wife, Ella, a former tennis player at UT-Arlington, and their daughter, who is 2 1/2.
He’s looking forward to catching up with Baron, his presenter, who he described as a “father-figure,” as well as several members of the class, who are in his peer group.
“I don’t really know what to expect in the Hall of Fame ceremony. I’ve never been to one,” he said, with a laugh. “It’s going to be fun, I’m sure. I’ll get to see all the other great athletes who are there. Kelly Campbell played football in my time there. He was amazing. Kele played volleyball. I have good memories from these people and it will be fun to see them again.”
Eveland is looking forward to seeing Ayalon, although, this time fully clothed.
“I remember them showing up and all their freshmen had to wear their little Speedo’s and get all painted up for our matches,” she said. “You’re always focused when you play your matches but O’Keefe Gym created such a great atmosphere because it’s small and tight, that you actually get to see people and get to know people. So I think it was a great way to create that camaraderie between athletes.”
“Actually, I think my class started a tradition of streaking with swimsuits in volleyball games to pump up the atmosphere,” he concurred. “I don’t know if that still goes on [it does], but our class got in the habit of getting the freshman swimmers to strip down to their swimsuits and run across the court to pump up the atmosphere in the crowd. It was a good time.”
Now that his streaking days are over, Ayalon is working on a start-up on-line fashion shopping network called mystylit.com.
He’ll keep an eye on that as well as Georgia Tech swimming, which recently produced Keren Siebner, a dual gold-medalist in the Maccabiah Games, and those three current Jackets and the many more Israelis to come.
“I was the first Israeli swimmer brought on board and then I kind of pushed through to bring other swimmers,” he said. “It was kind of a never-ending tie. I brought two or three people in and so on. It’s kind of like a chain.”
Baron hopes Ayalon will start a chain of inductees that follow him into the Tech Athletics Hall of Fame.
“I hope that he is just the first of many from his era that are ultimately going to be inducted because I could list you probably 10 or 12 men and women that deserve induction,” he said. “He is the first from that era and I know that a lot of his teammates are SO proud of him and so excited for him and what this means to that era of Georgia Tech Swimming. I think it really speaks volumes about who Shilo is as a person.”
Shilo Ayalon will be inducted along with six other former student-athletes on Friday, Oct. 18, at the Georgia Tech Hotel and Conference Center. Tickets for the induction dinner are $50 and can be purchased through the Alexander-Tharpe Fund at 404-894-6124. The inductees will also be honored during Tech’s football game against Syracuse on Saturday, Oct. 19, at Bobby Dodd Stadium.
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