Israel’s First Paralympic Gold Medalist.
Most people don’t fall from an Apache helicopter and live to tell the tale. That’s just one of the things that make Noam Gershony different.
After a tense final round, the medal is placed around the champion’s neck. He shakes hands with the official and looks down at the heavy gold medal, bearing the words “XXX Olympiad London 2012,” cradling it in his hand as he shakes his head in disbelief. A bouquet of flowers is thrust into his arms. He holds the flowers aloft in one hand and the medal in the other. The crowd roars out a cheer. He exhales deeply as the stadium announcer’s voice comes across the public address system: “Please stand for the national anthem of Israel.”
“Hatikvah” strikes up as the blue and white flag climbs the flagpole, framed on either side by the American stars and stripes, at a slightly lower perch. He looks down and begins to cry, sobbing and shaking and unable to sing as the music continues.
The Israeli TV sports announcer chokes up as he reports from the scene. As pictures of their champion are beamed into houses all across Israel, the television commentator says:
It’s impossible not to be with him, crying with him right now…on the winner’s podium, with “Hatikvah” playing, tears in his eyes. When you look back to six years ago, at what he has overcome and his journey to get here, there is only one thing to say: kol hakavod [all strength to you], Noam. We are with you. We are here for you. We feel you. We love you.
As Noam Gershony moves his wheelchair down from the podium toward the cheering crowd, someone drapes an Israeli flag around his shoulders. Noam looks up at the audience and reflects; the thought crosses his mind that he is Israel’s first Paralympic gold medalist. This is followed immediately by a second thought. “By all rights, I should not even be alive.” That’s because, by all rights, you don’t fall from an Apache helicopter and live to tell the tale. You don’t, that is, unless you are Noam Gershony.
Falling out of the Sky
July 20, 2006, three weeks after Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit had been kidnapped by Hamas terrorists utilizing underground tunnels and eight days since Lebanese terrorist organization Hezbollah abducted three soldiers at Israel’s northern border, Noam’s fateful day began. These events had precipitated reciprocal attacks by the Israeli Air Force which had escalated, as the IDF entered Lebanon to fight Hezbollah in what later became known as the Second Lebanon War. With attack helicopters deployed over the Gaza Strip and in southern Lebanon, Lieutenant Noam Gershony, an IDF Apache pilot, was very busy. This was the day that he fell from the sky.
On the morning of the 20th, Noam was assigned to a formation of two Apache helicopters and had flown to the Gaza Strip to attack Hamas targets. He completed the mission successfully. Later in the early evening, he and his copilots were briefed on the escalating situation in the north. Ground troops were about to enter Lebanon, and his squadron was tasked with providing air support.
The mission started off uneventfully, but around 11 PM, two Apache helicopters flying at six thousand feet collided and plummeted to the earth. Miraculously, one helicopter managed a safe emergency landing, but the second, the one that Noam was piloting, was more severely damaged. One of their own missiles had fired in the collision, causing damage to the main rotor. As the helicopter went into a free fall, spinning out of control, the tail rotor fell off. The helicopter crash-landed within a minute.
The initial report from the scene: two pilots are dead. But Noam was still alive.
Hearing a loud noise and rushing to the crash site to help, local residents found copilot Major Ran Kochba, thrown several meters outside the ruined helicopter, with his helmet still on. He was dead. Noam was still strapped into his seat in the cockpit, partially conscious, mumbling and bleeding profusely. He had lost a lot of blood and was having trouble breathing. The impact of the crash had smashed his lower jaw, which collapsed into his throat, leaving him no airway. The initial report from the scene: two pilots are dead.
But he was still alive. Within minutes of the crash, the helicopter of the Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) extraction unit, also known as Unit 669, arrived on the scene. With unbelievable luck, the rescue team included Dr. Yoav Paz, a chest surgeon, on board. Dr. Paz was able to stabilize Noam, and they whisked him away toward Rambam Hospital in Haifa, a 30-minute trip. On the way, Noam’s condition worsened, necessitating an emergency landing on the rooftop of Ziv Hospital in Safed, where Dr. Paz managed to stabilize Noam once again, before taking off to Rambam Hospital, where Gershony would remain for many long months of treatment and rehabilitation.
Noam lay unconscious for a week. When he woke, he had no memory of the crash. He felt pain and was unable to move his arms or legs. The doctors had repaired his smashed jaw and glued it shut, so he couldn’t speak. An alphabetical table was brought to him so that Noam could point to letters, but since both his arms were broken, he could not use that either. His injuries were extensive. Two broken arms and two broken legs. A broken pelvis, vertebrae, jaw, left elbow, and left shoulder rounded out the list of damage.
A couple of days passed, and Noam’s family and the doctors slowly broke the news of what had happened. When Noam was told that he had been in a serious crash, he assumed it was a car wreck, not a helicopter accident. In a cruel twist of fate, in addition to having to absorb the details of the crash and his copilot’s death, Noam was informed that separately, another helicopter had crashed due to a rare malfunction, resulting in the death of his 23-year-old friend, Lieutenant Tom Farkash.
Noam expected to rehabilitate quickly and return to flying, since he had always been physically fit and into sports such as soccer, basketball, volleyball, and tennis. At the very least, he thought to himself, knowing that he wouldn’t be able to attend the funeral of his friend Tom, he hoped to be there for the memorial service held traditionally at the end of the 30-day mourning period. Now, doctors were telling him that the only way for his back to heal would be to lie in bed for two months.
“That bed was like a jail cell,” Noam says. His jaw was wired shut for two and a half months, and he was fed liquids through a straw. He lost sixteen kilograms (over thirty-five pounds), dropping to a skeletal forty-six kilograms (101 pounds). Initially, Noam’s attitude was positive and upbeat, but after weeks of the monotony of the hospital, stuck in bed, and in pain, Noam’s mind began to wander, and he began to ask himself what he calls “dangerous questions.” Why had this happened to him? Was he being punished? What if he had followed his original plan and become an infantry soldier instead of attending flight school? His parents worried about his mental state, but Noam refused psychological help.
Two unlikely visits helped lift Noam’s spirits. The bereaved parents of his copilot Ran and the bereaved parents of his friend Tom helped him return to the land of the living. His friends visited and played him a song titled “A Million Stars,” written and sung by Tom’s sister, Amit Farkash, in memory of her fallen brother; it had become an anthem of the Second Lebanon War. Those visits caused Noam to make a decision: “I will never get depressed about my new physical or mental status again, because I am alive.”
Gershony had reached a turning point and decided with new determination to make the most of his life.
Stemming from a sense of gratitude that his life had been spared and a feeling of debt to his two buddies who were no longer alive, Gershony had reached a turning point and decided with new determination to make the most of his life. From the moment they were notified that Noam was being medevaced to the hospital on life support and for the six months that he remained there, his parents, brother, sister, or best friend were by his side morning, noon, and night. Slowly it was dawning on him that rehabilitation in his case would not mean returning to his former life. The spinal cord injury he suffered resulted in paralysis of the left leg, and while the right leg moved, due to an open fracture on the ankle, he could not put weight on that foot.
It became clear to Noam that he would never fly an Apache again. More than that, he would leave the hospital in a wheelchair, not as he had hoped, on his own two feet. He was beginning to realize that it was time to focus on what he could do to compensate for the abilities he had lost.
A New Focus
This new focus led him, upon leaving the hospital, to visit Beit Halochem, a sports rehabilitation and recreation center serving disabled veterans and their families. Noam tried everything, including swimming, wheelchair basketball, shooting, and more. In the end, it was wheelchair tennis that he enjoyed the most, feeling that it was the closest to being an able-bodied sport. He practiced every day and began to compete in Israel and abroad. In the winter of 2010, he was sent to Prague, where he handily won a tournament.
By September 2011, Gershony had qualified for the US Open Wheelchair Championship finals, beating one of the top players, David Wagner, the first time they played each other. Now Noam had a goal: the 2012 Paralympic Games, to be held in London the following year. The Tennis Masters Series in Belgium followed; there Noam became the first Israeli player ever to qualify for the Quad Singles finals. In January 2012, Noam won first place in Australian Open events for wheelchair tennis, again beating David Wagner, who was seeded second in the world. That was the year that he would achieve success in the Pensacola Open and the Japan Open Tennis Championships, as well as winning first place in Quad Singles in the French Open tournament. Now, he was ready for the Olympics.
London was uncharacteristically bathed in sunshine for much of the summer, and excitement was building as the much-anticipated 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games began, but Noam Gershony’s Olympic journey could scarcely have gotten off to a worse start. Upon landing, with just two days until the competition began, Noam discovered that his special wheelchair – designed specifically for his body and his needs and the one he had used in all his competitions – had been broken in transit. It was unusable.
Then the draw was announced, and Noam had been pitched against one of his best friends, a British athlete who was in top form. That match began badly. Gershony lost the first set of the first match of his first Olympics. It looked like he would fall at the first hurdle. He gritted his teeth and won the following sets 6-3, 6-3. Success followed in the next round and then again in the semi-finals. Now Gershony was facing his biggest challenge since recovering from his near-fatal accident. The pressure was immense: he carried the hopes of a nation on his shoulders.
“My service in the Air Force and my training in flight school prepared me for pressure, and playing in the Olympics is pure pressure. The first time I ever actually felt paralyzed was in the Olympic final.” Faced with this one-time opportunity, Gershony thought the difference between winning gold and winning silver looked vast. At the start of this, the biggest and most highly anticipated match of his life, Noam found it almost impossible to move the wheels of his wheelchair. His opponent once again was the favorite, the experienced and talented David Wagner. This was Wagner’s third Paralympic Games, and he had previously won the bronze and silver medals.
Within three minutes, Gershony had lost two games. Noam did not lose his concentration and ended the first set with a win. At one point during the second set, Gershony heard screaming and cheering coming from his family and friends. His opponent was approaching the net to shake hands. Noam had won the gold.
The sense of his life being a rollercoaster was crystal clear to Gershony at that moment. “I had gone from flying an Apache helicopter to being told I was disabled and confined to a chair. My military service had meaning. I took out Hamas and Hezbollah outposts; I saved lives and eliminated threats. Then I was disabled. And all of a sudden, I find myself at the Olympics, hearing ‘Hatikvah’ and seeing the Israeli flag. It was hard to understand how I got there. I saw my friends and family who had been with me through it all. I thought of the friends that I had lost. I’m a proud Israeli and a proud Jew. I was so proud and humbled to be able to bring honor to Israel.” Gershony was selected to be his nation’s flag bearer at the closing ceremony of the Summer Paralympics.
A Positive Outlook
When asked to define what underpins his resilience and positive mental attitude, Gershony is clear that while events are beyond our control, people can control and influence their perspective and outlook. Gershony, now in his thirties, is wise beyond his years. He continues: “My advice is to – on a daily basis – find the thing that will remind you how good your life is. Turn everything that happens to you into a positive.” Even when he is dealt a bad hand, Gershony maintains he can twist the circumstances to convince himself to focus on the positives.
On a daily basis find the thing that will remind you how good your life is. Turn everything that happens to you into a positive.
Reflecting on Israelis’ ability to maintain resilience, he credits “resourcefulness. We don’t take things for granted. We want to improve. We always ask questions. We always ask: Why do things this way, and not the other way? We don’t just accept things the way they are.”
This is flexibility, one of the keys of resilience. Noam personifies that flexibility in his optimistic approach. While he had moments when his optimism failed him, his flexibility helped him to restore it. He was able to refocus and gain perspective, aided by family and friends, and most particularly the parents of the two friends he lost in combat. The combination of flexibility, perspective taking, and optimism is a winning one for Noam Gershony.
Funny, charming, and good-looking with an infectiously positive attitude, Gershony doesn’t let anything hold him back. He not only scuba dives, seat-skis, and water-skis, he also teaches disabled children how to ski and volunteers teaching mathematics to underprivileged children as well. Noam travels the globe speaking to many thousands of people as a motivational speaker.
“I have stage fright!” Noam laughs, “I never thought I would become a pilot, I never dreamed I would be a Paralympic gold medalist, and I never imagined that I would become a public speaaker.”
Gershony is still in good shape and continues to play tennis for enjoyment, but rarely competitively, choosing to end his professional career at its peak. The journey from Lebanon to London provided a sense of closure, as that gold medal was placed around the neck of the man who fell to earth, survived, and became an Olympic champion.