Israeli siblings Ron and Leah Polonsky chase Olympics from Bay Area rivals Stanford and Cal

STANFORD, Calif. (AP) — With nearly identical ear-to-ear smiles, Ron and Leah Polonsky stroll through campus speaking Hebrew as they head for the Stanford pool relishing a rare chance to catch up in person given their hectic schedules.

Ron swims for Stanford. Leah competes at rival California, in nearby Berkeley. The Polonskys were ballroom dancers as young children in Haifa, Israel, before switching to swimming. Even though their colleges are separated only by the San Francisco Bay, it's the farthest apart they have ever been.

“It was really nice to move together and start together, although it was hard because it was our first time separated,” Leah said. “He tried to come here, I tried to go there, but it didn’t really work out. But I think it’s good for us to go separate ways maybe. I would love to be with him on the same team, but I don’t think it’s something that’s necessary.”

If all goes as hoped, they will be on the same team at this summer's Paris Olympics.

Securing spots on the Israeli Olympic team would be perfect for the talented breaststrokers who both focus on the 200 individual medley. It’s a challenging process given there are limited qualifying meets back home amid the current Middle East conflict.

The Polonskys have become creative in finding opportunities, with the help of Israeli technical adviser David Marsh, a top assistant coach at Cal.

“They are siblings that help each other in every way, both known for being extremely hard workers,” Marsh said. “Both very competitive, both very smart, and outstanding people.”

The Polonskys still need to meet FINA qualifying times to earn Olympic berths. They could make the Israeli relay teams, too.

They are set to compete in their country's nationals scheduled for June 3-6 in Netanya, Israel. The next chance to qualify could be at the European Aquatics Championships from June 16-22 in Belgrade, Serbia.

Their parents and two younger siblings left Israel last year to be closer to them and now live in San Jose. The entire family would be thrilled with a trip to Paris.

Ron made his Olympic debut in Tokyo.

“Although I swam a personal best, which is super important at an Olympics ... I still felt like something was missing, and it’s probably because my sister Leah was not there,” Ron said.

“That’s because my whole journey was right next to Leah. We grew up together, we started swimming together, we went to school together. I’m one year older, but we swam in the same pool, we went to the same high school, we went to the same other athletic activities. I’m used to feeling some sense of family close by.”

They are a calming influence on each other. It has always been this way — even if the Polonskys have had to get used to supporting each other while living about an hour apart.

As kids, Ron and Leah would head out for their ballroom dancing practices at ages 5 and 6, and also began swimming together. When coaches eventually pushed Leah to choose between dancing and swimming, she stuck with Ron and swimming.

“He was always like my role model, I had someone to look up to. That was very nice. We did everything together, from ballroom dancing to swimming,” Leah said. “We did both for a long time. He had judo so he had three different sports. He stopped before me and then they wanted me to choose between ballroom and swimming and I was like, ‘swimming.’ ..."

Don’t ask them to demonstrate any dancing on the pool deck these days — “We don’t remember anything,” Leah declared.

Ron surprised Leah at a Stanford-Cal women’s meet when she was still finding her footing and needed the lift of seeing her brother’s face. She did the same for him when the Cal men went to Stanford.

“At the beginning it was hard, but I feel like we needed to experience life still close to each other and try to achieve the same things like the Olympics but in different ways,” Leah said.

She left Israel at 19, while Ron was 20. Their parents, Anna and Oleg, moved to nearby San Jose with their two younger children after years of hearing from family in New York that they should immigrate to the United States. They found good jobs in their shared field as computer science engineers.

Ron is 23 and 14 months older, while Leah turned 22 on May 25. Both are seniors in the fall given Ron started college later — and they almost look like twins with those matching bright smiles.

“I guess we got it from our parents,” Leah said.

Sometimes, they even finish each other’s thoughts.

Leah has declared as a computer science major who is considering a pre-med path. Ron is leaning toward computer science as well.

“Still undeclared?” his sister teased.

“I like to keep the options open,” big brother came right back.

“We both are a little bit nerdy, we like engineering, so the Bay Area is the good stuff,” Ron said.

And being close helps them continue cheering for each other.

“She was always there for me,” Ron said. “I could always reach out. If I had struggles she could always help me out or she could come to me for advice, I could come to her for advice. I don’t think I can explain how nice it is to have someone that close being actually close to you all the time.”

Now, their entire support system is nearby.

“I think it’s neat that her family has relocated to San Jose so they have a close home base nearby to go home and reset if needed,” Leah’s Cal teammate and close friend Rachel Klinker said. “On occasion she’ll go home, but she’s very dedicated to what she’s doing in the pool. It inspires me every single day. If I’m having a rough day I look over, she’s doing a different set and I’m like, ‘Look at Leah go.’ It’s incredible. Oh my gosh, she’s a pure machine in the water, nothing fazes her.”

Ron and Leah feel beyond lucky to have each other as they chase their Olympic dreams.

“It was awesome,” Ron said of their close-knit relationship. “It is still awesome.”


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