A lost tribe of Hebrews would have been easier for the incredulous rabbi to accept than this delegation of Israeli swimmers claiming to be from West Liberty State College in the remotest hills of West Virginia. "How did you get here?" he wanted to know. "What are you doing in West Virginia?"
The four Israelis—Avraham Melamed, Moshe Gertel, Yoel Kende and Danny Stern—and their 250-pound Irish Catholic coach, Tom Grall, had come to Steubenville, Ohio seeking funds for the impoverished student-athletes. They tried to explain. They had heard the questions many times before, increasingly of late as the Israelis have made West Liberty one of the favorites in next week's NAIA championships.
"We came to West Liberty to swim and to get an education," said Melamed, the group's spokesman and, at 27, conceivably the world's oldest world-class butterfly swimmer.
The rabbi gave the Israelis his blessing but nothing material.
"I felt sorry for him," says Grall. "It had to look like a setup, a hoax. O.K., it's enough they are wandering Jews swimming for an obscure West Virginia college, but my well-preserved kibbutzniks are not exactly college-age kids. And I'm not your neat little swimming coach."
Melamed, the first of the Israelis to find his way to West Virginia, arrived at West Liberty as the result of what college presidents like to refer to as cultural-exchange programs. Grall calls it recruiting. Yet to this day he is not sure who recruited whom.
Melamed and Grall met by a pool, of course, the huge municipal pool in Turin. Grall was in Italy as the assistant coach of the U.S. men's team for the 1970 World University Games; Melamed was a member of the Israeli team. For years he had tried to get a swimming scholarship in the U.S. but had no takers. The problem, increasingly, was his age—specifically, the NCAA rule which states that an alien student-athlete loses a year of eligibility for each year of organized competition after his 19th birthday. By this formula, Melamed had minus-three years of eligibility when he met Grall.
Nonetheless, Grall said he would see if Springfield College, his alma mater, would give Melamed a full ride. In passing, he mentioned West Liberty and the benefits of being educated there—specifically that the NAIA does not penalize aliens. But although tuition would be free, room and board, alas, would not.
Back home, Grall learned that Springfield wasn't able to help Melamed. And so that was that, or so Grall thought—until he got a long-distance call. It was Melamed, announcing that he had arrived. "Arrived where!" asked Grall. "In Pittsburgh," said Melamed. "Why?" asked Grall. "I've decided to go to West Liberty," said Melamed. "Don't move," said Grall, who informed his president that they had a new freshman and then left for Pittsburgh to escort him into the hills.
"It was easier getting from Ramat Yohanan to Pittsburgh than it was to get from Pittsburgh to West Liberty," says Melamed.