Special Olympics athlete finds success


A special star was born in 1983.

As an infant, Mati Oren, son of Vicki and Haim Oren, was diagnosed with minimal brain damage (MBD) and was constantly ill and hospitalized. He underwent eight operations before turning four, when he began to speak.

From age five, he taxied daily from his kibbutz to attend a special school in Haifa.

The moment that would lead to stardom arrived when Mati, then 14, represented his Haifa school at a swim meet in Tel Aviv.


“We had no idea we were going to a Special Olympics event,” his mother, Vicki said in an email interview, “but it was love at first sight.” At that moment, a world opened for Mati that would help him “reach his dreams, and the sky is the limit!”

Special Olympics Israel is part of the international organization of 2.25 million participants with intellectual disabilities from 169 countries.

Mati functions cognitively at a first-grade level. He has difficulty knowing what is right and wrong and understanding limits.

He has low math skills and no sense of money, yet he reads, writes, and speaks like his peers and is adept with computers and electronics, his mother said. He also can navigate the bus and train systems better than many of his peers, she said. “He does everything at a ‘slower’ pace,” Vicki said, “but he eventually catches up with his peers!”

Vicki, a native of St. Louis and graduate of the University of Missouri, attended Shaare Emeth Congregation. She was working in the Cultural Arts Department of the Jewish Community Center when she was sent to help start up a program in Israel. Soon after, Vicki made aliyah.

Now Vicki is the head bookkeeper of Amicotube, Ltd., a kibbutz factory, and she is a full-time volunteer for Special Olympics and is on its Board of Directors.

Mati comes from an athletic family: his brothers Dekel and Benji are involved with basketball, soccer, horses, wind surfing, and cycling. He also inherited swimming genes from his grandfather, Buddy Lebman, of St. Louis, Vicki said. She gives credit to Noah Ram, a coach from their kibbutz who encouraged Mati’s aquatic progress from early on, enabling him to become an Olympic star.

After his first experience in the Special Olympics, Mati was asked to join the National Special Olympics swim team that met weekly in Netanya. Then began the training and the long-distance traveling to get there.

In 2000, Mati represented Israel at the Euro Games in Holland, bringing home three gold medals and one silver.

Grandfather Buddy Lebman recalls how several Arab villages around the kibbutz put up banners and welcomed Mati home from Holland. “Mati became an icon — he was in the newspapers and on television,” he said.

In 2003, Mati returned from the World Games in Dublin, Ireland, with four gold medals and a Special Olympics record in the 100-meter individual medley.

He also won a gold medal in 2005 as Special Olympics was newly integrated into the Maccabia games. That same year, Mati took first place in the Special Olympics division that competed for the first time at the Galilee open water competition. Mati was first again in a 2006 Special Olympics 1500-meter swimming competition.

Then, in 2006, Vicki discovered the prestigious RCP Tiburon Open Water Mile Race, a fundraiser event for Special Olympics Northern California.

“It was my dream to take a team to the RCP Tiburon event,” Vicki said. That dream came true: Mati represented Israel with eight teammates in the cold waters of San Francisco Bay. He took first place out of 14 Special Olympics swimmers, and he finished 145 out of 800.

Special Olympics has brought Mati one success after another. He remains undefeated in local and national swim competitions since he began in 1998.

“All I can say is he’s phenomenal,” Lebman said. “He has never lost a race.”

“Special Olympics has affected our entire family as we have all seen the positive benefits it has brought to Mati,” said Vicki.

In effect, Mati leads an independent life in his own apartment and works in a plastics factory on the kibbutz. This enables him to receive a “budget,” medical support, and a guaranteed home for life on the kibbutz.

He retains close contact with friends and family, and, as part of the “group,” goes to pubs, concerts, and discos with friends. An avid participant in kibbutz sports activities, Mati hopes to become an assistant Special Olympics swim coach or pool manager, Vicki said, and he also would like to take computer courses.

In October 2007, Mati is headed to the World Games in Shanghai, China. “He hopes to represent his country, kibbutz, regional Jezreal Valley, family, and supporters to the best of his ability,” Vicki said. “There will certainly be worthy competitors, and he will give it his best.”

Additionally, Vicki, chosen as one of 42 family leaders, will attend the first-ever International Family Leadership and Support Summit, to be held in conjunction with the World Games. The Summit seeks to empower, energize, and inspire families, “the most powerful and valuable natural resource available” for the success of Special Olympics.

Vicki said she is “privileged to be among the lucky ones chosen.”

“It is like a ‘way of life’ for Mati and an ‘extra’ family for us,” Vicki said. “Special Olympics is a global family, and we are proud to be part of it.”

Vicki said Special Olympics Israel relies on donations, donors are needed to adopt athletes and/or sponsor events. All contributions are welcome. Checks can be sent to Special Olympics Israel at The Wingate Institute, Netanya, Israel 42902. For any questions, contact Vicki Oren at [email protected].