Sam Zeitlin, a.k.a. "Brooklyn Lightning," raised his arms in victory as he sped through the finish-line fifty meters ahead of the competition at the 1967 U.S. Olympic cycling pre-trials. A wave of ecstasy washed over him as the crowd lifted his exhausted body high in the air. Meanwhile, a grim-faced coach fought his way through the mob, and whispered into his trainee's ear. Sam had just been officially disqualified from the race because he raised his arms a fraction of a second before crossing the finish-line.

Sam wasted no time in entering competitions throughout the New York metropolitan areaFrom the time Sam Zeitlin's father bought him a gleaming red Schwinn bicycle on his fifth birthday, Sam dreamed of racing in the Olympics. As an adolescent, Sam saved up money and purchased a custom-made track bike.

Sam wasted no time in entering competitions throughout the New York metropolitan area, and won race after race. Scouts soon took notice of Sam's talent and perseverance, and he was asked to join the New York Cycling Team. Thereafter, he made the American National Cycling Team where he won medals in Israel, across South and Central America, the USA and Canada, and Europe. By the time Sam entered the pre-Olympic trials in 1967, his days were dedicated to professional swimming, skating for his college team, and jumping rope for hours to build stamina. He rode his bike through all weather conditions, in effort to win the Olympic gold medal he dreamed of as a five-year-old.

A few days after being rejected, Sam went for a bike ride through Long Island. As he turned a corner, he heard the frightening screech of a car closing in. Sam's swift reflexes allowed him to swerve onto the sidewalk, thus avoiding the car, preventing catastrophic injuries and even death. Stunned, Sam looked over his shoulder, and saw his chief cycling rival, Doug, sitting in the driver's seat of a black Corvette. Doug's voice rang with venom, "We'll get you next time, Jew!"

Realizing that he was singled out because of his Jewish religion, Sam decided to join the Israeli cycling team. He was determined not to give up on his dream. He contacted Nati, the team manager of the Israeli Cyclist Club. "How would you like to bring your team up to world-class standards?" asked Sam. Nati and Sam had met a few years earlier when Sam was 20-years-old and had just won the 1965 Maccabiah Games Cycling Sprint competition. Nati knew that with Sam as coach and member of the Israeli cycling team, the Israelis would finally be able to compete in the cycling division of the Olympics.

When he wasn't training, Sam explored the Israeli cities and countrysideSam moved to Israel, where his professionalism and upbeat attitude made him a valuable member of the Hapoal Tel Aviv Sports Club. He designed a rigorous cycling routine for the Israeli athletes, and under his tutelage, his vision of sending an Israeli cycling team to the Olympics began to take form.

When he wasn't training, Sam explored the Israeli cities and countryside. Although Sam had basic knowledge of Judaism, he was unaware of the beauty of his heritage. Once, while visiting the Western Wall, Sam noticed two teenage boys wearing tzitzit and kippot. Sam introduced himself to the boys. After a long discussion, he was impressed by their straightforward attitude and spiritual ideals. Sam and the boys became good friends, and they suggested that he enroll in an English-speaking yeshiva.

Sam warming up for pre-Olympic trials.
Sam warming up for pre-Olympic trials.

One day, Sam rode his bike to a yeshiva in Bnei Brak, parked his bike in front of the brick yeshiva building, pulled the door open, and entered a different reality. Rows of men sat in pairs, worn books yellowed with age spread out before them. Lone men milled about humming tunes in an undertone, while others were engrossed in heartfelt prayer. The lively sound of debate rang through the air, as the young men discussed the meaning of the sacred texts.

Sam approached a young rabbi whose gentle face was framed by side-locks and a thick beard. The rabbi introduced himself as Rabbi Gershon Rabinowitz, and Sam was grateful when the kind man took him under his wing. Sam began to warm up to the yeshiva's atmosphere, and began spending much of his free time there.

Saturday became the highlight of his week, as he would join Reb Gershon and his family for the Shabbat meal. The Shabbat table set with white tablecloth, glowing candles, and mouthwatering food filled Sam with warmth and belonging. Reb Gershon discussed stimulating words of Torah, and sang songs that lifted the spirit. Sam especially loved the fast-paced song Shabbat hayom l'Hashem, "Shabbat is the day for G‑d," and it became his mantra. The beat would remain in his mind all week long. While Sam practiced racing tactics along the coast roads near Caesarea, he sang the song to himself, matching its quick tempo to the rhythm of his cycling.

As Sam's appreciation for Judaism grew, he made changes in his life toward becoming a practicing Jew. Sam, by then known by his Jewish name, Shimon, moved from the rocky hills of Jerusalem to the even terrain of Bnei Brak. Bnei Brak put Shimon adjacent to his beloved yeshiva, and the town's smooth roads aided his cycling practice.

Shimon sent a heartfelt petition to the Israeli Sports Federation explaining his dilemmaHowever, as Shimon became more observant, he became increasingly troubled by the need to train on Shabbat. Shimon wanted to fully observe the holy Shabbat by abstaining from riding his bike, but how could he avoid bike-riding on Saturday when it was designated as the official day of cycling practice and trials in Israel?

Shimon sent a heartfelt petition to the Israeli Sports Federation explaining his dilemma. He explained that as an observant Jew he did not want to desecrate the day of Shabbat, and that he was willing to put in extra hours of training every other day of the week. The Israeli Sports Federation was unmoved. They sent him a letter stating: "All official practices and trials will be held on Saturday, no exceptions."

Shimon did not give up. Instead, he reminded the Federation that he was the only Israeli at world-class cycling standards, and asked again that they make an exception for him. The Federation's abrupt reply: "No exceptions will be made."

Shimon had gone through months of brutal practice in order to compete in the '72 Olympics in Munich, Germany, and he had already purchased his plane ticket. After serious deliberation, Shimon resolved that he would not violate Shabbat, even if it meant giving up his dream of competing in the World Olympics. Israel sent representatives in weightlifting, wrestling, fencing, and rifle shooting, but without Shimon, there was no Israeli cycling team.

On the tenth day of the Munich Olympics, the Black September terror group burst into the Israeli sleeping quarters and seized eleven athletes. The world watched in horror as every one of the hostages was brutally murdered.

Sam with his team.
Sam with his team.

The State of Israel entered a state of mourning. In the midst of his grief and anger, Shimon trembled when he considered how close he came to certain death. In the days and years that followed the massacre, Shimon did not cease to speak of his personal miracle, always giving credit to his keeping the holy day of Shabbat.

Shimon met and married Leah Gol, the daughter of the chief rabbi of Afghanistan, in Israel. When Leah was seven-years-old, her family had fled to Israel, escaping pogroms targeting the Jewish community.

Shimon loved inviting Jewish cyclists to his Shabbat tableThe Zeitlin's lived in Israel for several years, and than moved to Brooklyn, NY. Shimon's son, Avigdor, recalls a childhood home full of love and peace. The house was open to people of all backgrounds, and Shimon loved inviting Jewish cyclists to his Shabbat table.

Shimon always told his children about his professional Olymic cycling years. "We were practically born on bikes," said his daughter. By the age of three, each child had a bike of their own, and even learned to ride a two-wheeler. Shimon taught his children many biking trips and maneuvers, and nearly every Sunday, the family went on biking and skating trips. Said his daughter, "My father always told us how his mother supported and encouraged him to succeed and win, and he did the same with each of his seven children, developing our talents so we could have a hobby for life."

Shimon worked as an exterminator for almost 30 years, while working for the NYC HPD for the first 10-15 years after moving back to the States. All the while, he trained athletes for pro-sports. He earned multiple degrees in physiology and physical education. He also trained professional runners in Harlem, New York City. His trainees won 1st place in their races.

At age 53, he needed open heart surgery. He stopped exterminating and instead opened a private gym, training his clients privately and rehabilitating himself as well, losing almost 150 pounds. He trained many rabbis, obese men and teenagers, special children, by working out alongside them, encouraging them to work to the limit. He earned an "Elite Coach" certificate, which is the highest level of coaching for the Olympics.

Shimon passed away peacefully, in his sleep, as he always wanted to, on June 30th, 2004, the 11th of Tammuz, at the age of fifty-nine. He would tell his children that he wished to pass away with the kiss of death, without illness and suffering. May his memory be for a blessing.