Malnik leaves army to join Gophers

Brian Stensaas

Turning 18 years old in the United States entitles citizens to several things.
You can choose to smoke, you can win millions playing the state lotteries and, if you are a male, you are required to fill out a selective service card.
But if you are a resident of Israel, like two members of the Minnesota men’s swimming and diving team, forget the card.
On your 18th birthday, you become a member of the Israeli National Army. Like it or not.
Sophomore Dov Malnik knows all about the process. A resident of the Tel Aviv suburb Rishon Le-zion, he spent two years in the service before leaving to swim for the Gophers. He still has one year of duty left, but hopes to have it scratched because he is too old to serve.
“Unless you are psycho or have a very serious disability or something, you have to go,” Malnik said.
The process
Whether you are male or female, the Israeli Army wants you at 18. Men are required to serve three years, while women spend two years as soldiers. The time can be brutal to athletes. For the majority of the time there is only rigorous training, no time for practice at swimming or any other sport.
There is, however, special consideration for top athletes — hence why Malnik spent only two years in the service. But the consideration does not always mean an easy exit from the army.
“I wouldn’t say that it is special benefits,” Malnik said. “But they do only allow special athletes to get out early. In swimming, maybe five.”
Because of Malnik’s year-early leave, he is still considered a soldier by the army.
Malnik, who just turned 22 last month, said it was important to get out of the service and to the United States early.
“If I would have stayed in Israel until I was 22, I would have lost a year of eligibility,” he said. “And obviously I didn’t want to do that.”
Boot camp
Even though Malnik was an Israeli National Champion in the breaststroke, there was no special treatment given in the army.
“It wasn’t like the Marines or the Navy SEALs or anything,” Malnik said, “but we did serve our two months of boot camp.”
Malnik was based in a camp miles from his home, too far for him to drive every day. He stayed at the Wingate Institution after his basic training, a sports training complex about 30 minutes from base where he was allowed to swim in the morning. But after that, it was all army.
Despite the numerous hours of calisthenics and drills for two straight months, it wasn’t the physical work that bothered Malnik about the boot camp.
For two whole months, he was deprived of a pool.
“In swimming, you’re off for a month and you need almost two months to get back to shape,” he said.
After the two months of drills at boot camp, each soldier is assigned a specific job that can last anywhere from a week to months. Jobs can range from being an armed guard to simple paperwork.
In the army now
During his stay in the army, the nearest combat was in South Lebanon. At times, Malnik did stand watch with loaded weapons.
“I wasn’t in a dangerous area, but a risky one,” he said.
Although Malnik never saw live action, deep in his mind he knew the possibility was there.
“There was a lot of frustration because you have no control of your life,” he said. “You can’t just decide that you want a day off. You go or you go to jail.”
Because of his status as a recognized swimmer, there were days that Malnik was just plain unhappy.
He would argue with higher-ranked soldiers who would not let him practice swimming at the times he wanted.
“They told me that I was a soldier before I was a swimmer,” he said. “That lasted six months and then it got a little easier. And then I got to come to the U.S.”
Malnik was let out of the army after two years, with one stipulation: that he would return after he was done with school.
When Malnik’s swimming career is over at Minnesota, the beckoning call of the army will be there loud as a bugle horn. He will be almost 25 then, much older than most of the other third-year soldiers.
“Maybe they will think that I am too old for them,” he said. “That is what I am hoping.”

Brian Stensaas covers swimming and diving and welcomes comments at [email protected]