Teaneck—Move over, Michael Phelps! Brothers Avi and Ezra Borgen, age 12 and 10 respectively, recently qualified for and swam in the New Jersey Long Course Junior Olympics Championships, which took place at Rutgers University July 28-31. Avi’s best event was the 50-meter Breaststroke, which he swam in 39.64 seconds, placing him 31st in the state. Ezra’s swim in the 50-meter Butterfly at 35.77 seconds put him ninth in the state, and his 100-meter Freestyle time of 1:11.78 placed him 13th. Ezra’s times in the New Jersey Junior Olympics qualified him to advance to the next level, so he will swim as a member of the New Jersey All-Star Team at the Eastern Zone Long Course Age Group Championships. The Eastern Zone Championship, made up of teams from Virginia through Maine, will take place August 3-6 in East Meadow, NY.
The brothers are sons of Lazer and Melissa Borgen, of Teaneck’s Arzei Darom community. Avi, a rising seventh grader, is homeschooled, and Ezra is entering fifth grade at Yeshivat He’Atid. Melissa told The Jewish Link that the family didn’t have any prior experience with competitive swimming and first got involved with swimming simply for safety reasons. “We just wanted them to be strong swimmers,” she said. “They were able to really advance their skills because they were working with such an excellent coach, and we continued because of the interest and love of the sport on the part of the kids.”
The boys, who both began swimming at age 4, now swim year-round on the Waverunners swim team, which is a competitive team based at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly. Waverunners Head Coach Juya Cho is a Level 3 ASCA (American Swimming Coaches Association) coach. She earned five gold medals for the Korean Junior National Team as a junior competitor and held the #1 ranking in her age group. She has taught swimming for over 20 years and has been head coach of the JCC Waverunners for the past six.
Ten-year-old Ezra Borgen told The Jewish Link that Coach Cho is very strict. Cho even has a son training in Japan currently, who is preparing to compete in the Asian Games, also known as the Asiad, which will be held in 2018 in Jakarta and Palembang, Indonesia. “You can’t really easily please her; she has very high expectations. If I have a goal, she will set it even higher for me,” he said.
However, he learned that he “will end up achieving what she set for me.” From that, Ezra posited: “Now I know that if I have a goal for myself, I can do it if I try hard.”
The team participates in the JCC swim league and also attends USA Swimming meets during the short course (fall/winter) and long course (spring/summer) seasons. (Long course means the swimmers compete in full-size Olympic swimming pools, and short-course pools are half the length.) Practice in the summer tends to run two hours a day, five days a week, with occasional additional early-morning practices. During the school year, the team swims indoors in the evening four days a week and travels to competitions on Sundays.
“Practices are demanding but the boys really love it. They realize that improving takes a lot of hard work. Occasionally they will have to miss some of the fun things that kids do, like a birthday party, but they love it. It really comes from them; I am just the driver,” said Melissa.
Melissa also shared that participating on a competitive swim team as Torah-observant Jews has meant compromising at times. Ezra could not compete in every event he qualified for in the Rutgers competition because they took place on Shabbat. Since many USA Swimming meets take place on Saturdays, they are sometimes unable to participate in events that would help them advance. “Coach Cho has gone out of her way to find Sunday events for them to compete in, and alternate events when there is a conflict on a Yom Tov,” Melissa said. They have also stayed over for a Shabbat near a meet venue when an event ends late on a Friday, she added.
“While they love to swim and to improve on their personal best times, they know that growing in Torah and keeping mitzvot is what will bring them close to Hashem, which leads to true happiness,” Melissa said.
Competitions also meant their summer schedule had to be adjusted and tough choices had to be made. “Avi and Ezra chose not to leave for sleepaway camp—the highlight of their year—until after the Junior Olympics in Avi’s case, and after the All-Star Zone Championships for Ezra.” This meant missing the opening tochnit (program) at Camp Stone and the bus ride to camp with their friends, a very difficult choice. “Fortunately, Camp Stone is accommodating their late arrivals, and they will be able to participate in most of their session,” Melissa said.
Being both brothers and teammates have brought the two closer as well. “As brothers and on the team, they support each other. It’s a diverse team, with kids from different backgrounds. They all respect and cheer each other on,” she added.
Every year, since they began competing on the team a few years back, the Borgen boys have pushed themselves to qualify at higher levels. “When we started with swimming lessons at the JCC, we never imagined they would take their swimming this far. This year they competed at the statewide and zone level, but they are eager to go further. It will take a lot of work, but they want to take this sport as far as they can take it.”
For now, reveling in his victory, what did Ezra love the most about competing in the Junior Olympics? It was winning the right to buy a “cool T-shirt and sweatshirt” commemorating the event. “It makes me feel accomplished,” he confided.
By Elizabeth Kratz