Where The Fern Grows

Jan. 27, 2009

By Morgan Gard
The Daily

When the men's swimming team practices, there is something like the sound of thunder that fills the room -- just as focused and rumbling, and at times just as loud. The unified crash belongs to the 18 men in the pool, but if you listen closely it is possible to identify each individual swimmer's rhythm.

Somewhere in the third row up from where I sit I find the pulse belonging to the person I'm here to meet. He stands at 5 feet 8 inches tall, and under his Nike skullcap there is a head of short brown hair that extends into a svelte beard. His name is Erez Fern. He is a junior, has been swimming for most of his life and was born and raised in Israel.

He leans over slightly, looking as though he'd rather still be swimming in the pool than sitting in the stands. His voice is soft with a modest accent.

'I've been swimming since I was 6,' Fern said, 'and competing since I was 10. When I was 15 I moved ... to the national swimming center in Israel.'

While attending the Wingate Institute, Israel's National Centre for Physical Education and Sport, Fern continued to train and compete in a number of swimming events, including the European Junior Championships. He said little about these times, and moved quickly from point to point in his personal narrative.

At the age of 18, Fern was drafted into the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) just like every other fit-to-serve person his age, and served his mandatory three-year initial enlistment just like them too. However, he does admit that national athletes in the IDF get a certain type of special treatment.

Fern's special status in the military, known as 'Excellent Athletes,' allowed him the privileges of continued daily training at Wingate and some travel to compete in events.

Fern is, by law, not allowed to say much about his time in the IDF. When asked what his responsibilities were in the IDF, what his rank was or what he did, he quickly replied, 'I can't really talk about that.'

What he can talk about are his swimming achievements during that time -- although he did so with an oddly blasé tone. Fern held an Israeli record in the 200-meter butterfly that lasted from 2005 to 2006, and placed 20th in the 2005 World Swimming Championships in Montreal, Quebec.

After completing his tour in the IDF in 2006, Fern came to the UW to study industrial engineering. He describes himself as a 'math and science guy,' and said he wanted to join the swimming program at the UW. Even though it seems like a perfect match, transitioning to the UW has not been particularly easy. While he acknowledged that the cultural differences between Israel and the United States are slight, he still had quite a bit to face.

Head swimming coach Whitney Hite believed it was Erez's strong will and passion that led to his success.

'If he really puts his mind to it he can do anything,' Hite said. 'He's talented and he is very determined. He's had a lot of challenges but he's met every one and done well.'

Fern, however, wanted to make sure it was well known that Hite's coaching was a large part of both his and the team's success over the past three years, especially when considering small practice facilities.

'Whitney's dealing with [the team's small facilities] better than any coach I've had before. It's really hard with our conditions to actually succeed. Since [Hite began coaching], the team got significantly better,' Fern said.

Fern has not had to face these challenges alone. Fellow UW swimmer Yonatan Cohen is also from Israel, also served in the IDF and also went to Wingate.

'We came here together and we live together,' Fern said.

In fact, he and Cohen have shared living quarters ever since they began at the UW.

'You suddenly find yourself in a whole different place, but you have your best friend next to you. You can always share everything that's going on. You always support each other, you never feel alone, even though you're in a different country. It makes everything more special.'

Cohen, a senior who will return to Israel next year, agreed.

'It makes it way easier when you have someone,' he said. 'It's hard to explain... someone that understands exactly what you're talking about and what other difficulties that you have to deal with.'

Fern experienced a similar feeling with the rest of the team as well.

'People live together, we travel together all the time, we basically fight together. Here, we all train every day, everybody's really serious and everybody wants each other to succeed.'

And success is definitely in Fern's plan... he is certain that this season will be his best.

This is in comparison to his last season, when he placed second in the men's 200 fly and won the same event at six of the seven dual meets he competed in.

Fern has three meets left in this season, not including the Pac-10 Championships, to prove that. The first challenge, a dual meet against University of Minnesota, was held Jan. 17 in Federal Way.

This particular event was symbolic of all Fern's progress so far. In the 100-yard butterfly event, he raced against Nadav Kochavi, a good friend of Fern's who was also born in Israel, served in the IDF and now swims for UM's team.

Sitting in the front row of bleachers, as the UW and UM men's swimming teams float in the pool waiting for the 100 fly to begin, I can't see Erez's face, but I know what's going through his mind. It was something he said earlier:

'As you progress through the season, you feel it all the time. You feel how your body gets better. Specifically for me, the butterfly, I feel my stroke, I feel how much power I have. I feel my turns, how fast they are, how strong I push from the power. I feel so many different things. When all those things come together, if you did what you had to do, then when you come to the meets everything is automatic.'

Perhaps Kochavi, in the next lane, was thinking something similar.

Fern placed fourth in that race to Kochavi's sixth. After, they both jumped in to the same lane of the practice pool and shared a lap. When they returned to where they began Cohen was standing on the edge of the pool. A brief conversation began; they were laughing, looking at one another and, maybe, talking about how far they've come.

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