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Monday, February 23, 2004

Immigrants on Ice

Archived from The Jerusalem Report, February 23, 2004

The Armenian bobsled driver paces the length of Lake Placid's wooden starting house, exhaling in short, loud bursts.  He seems to be convincing himself that his impending life-threatening endeavor is worthwhile.

Everyone adheres to their own routine before hitting the steep, serpentine track of hard white ice.  The Armenian's brakeman, whose task is pushing off with the driver and then keeping his head down until it's time to stop, is holding onto a bannister and pumping his legs, simulating a push-off.  He's wearing a mask that covers his face and a down jacket, storing heat for outside, where it's well below zero. An American
driver is warming his shoes and feet with a hair dryer. His Canadian counterpart stands to his left, eyes shut, arms extended, head jerking from side to side. He is reliving the Lake Placid run's treacherous course - 20
turns over nine-tenths of a mile, with an overall vertical drop of 40 stories - each tum engraved in his mind.

The Israelis, already in their cleats and their midnight-blue speed suits, are on their backs in a corner. Knees bent, eyes closed, they seem to be locked in prayer or meditation. Bobsledding is a sport that can literally
force the separation of a man's head from the rest of his body, and has once.

Now it is the Israelis' tum - their final descent ofthe six-race America's Cup tournament.  They walk calmly out into the cold, late-January air, flip their blue-and-white bobsled onto its freshly sanded runners, tum down the lids of their visors, yell unintelligible words of encouragement to one another, and execute - at 58.01 seconds - one of the best runs of the day.  In the two rankings on the tour - nation's and overall - it helps lift them into third and fifth, respectively, out of 15 teams.

These Israelis have lived all their lives far from the Mediterranean sun. The driver, Aaron Zeff, 35, a businessman and former U.S. Air Force fighter pilot, is from the San Francisco area. His first brakeman, plastic surgeon John Frank, 41, once an NFL tight end, hails from the Allegheny Mountains of Pennsylvania; and the reserve brakeman, 36-year-old David Greaves, is from Winnipeg. The coach, Ross Dominikovich,
36, is a former New Zealand Olympic coach, but for the other three, fascination with bobsledding is recent.

It began in a hot tub. Zeff and Frank, a former star with the San Francisco 49ers (he caught two touchdown
passes in their Super Bowl 23 win over the Cincinnati Bengals), met while they were soaking at the Concordia Club in the Bay City.  Frank says they were on the first leg of the Jewish triathlon, the other
two being the steam room and the buffet table.  Their talk turned to skiing, and Zeff figured Frank was blowing a bit of hot air.  "I thought he'd have a nice outfit and a half-day ticket," he says. But when they
hit the slopes of the High Sierras that winter, both of them, in alpine parlance, ripped it up.

In March 2002, Zeff went to ski in Banff, Canada. When he heard the bobsleds roar down the old Olympic track in Calgary, he immediately called Frank.  "Listen to this," he yelled over his cell phone. "This is amazing."  Frank got on a plane and the two watched and learned.  By the end of the vacation, Frank and Zeff had enlisted Dominikovich as a coach and had conjured up a dream: to represent Israel in the Olympics.

Zeff has close emotional links to the country and has visited more times than he can count. He once volunteered his skills as an F-4 Phantom pilot to the Israel Air Force.  (They said, no, thank you.)  He is currently trying to create a system whereby the Jewish War Veterans of America would adopt different
Israel Defense Forces units.  He has personally adopted a unit that's been serving in Rafah, in the Gaza Strip, and, in April, he is set to be married in Herzliyah.

Still, they weren't Israelis - and they had no idea how to command a bobsled down a track, let alone compete with the world's best. The soft-spoken Dominikovich put them on a training schedule. But to get into North America's one annual course to certify bobsled drivers for international competition, a country had to sponsor
them. They needed a letter from the Israeli Olympic Committee, acknowledging that they might one day represent Israel.  Zeff called; he e-mailed; he got no response.  Finally, in October, he got on a plane. "I went down to Wingate [the sports training institute near Netanyah, which houses some committee offices] so many times," he says, ''that it was easier for them to give me the letter than to listen to the sound of me knocking on the door." By November, they'd started the five-day course.

Dominikovich describes the skills needed to excel in piloting a bobsled as "the ability to run a sprint and
then play an exact video game like Tetris." Pointing to Zeff across a long table of food at a brewery/restaurant
post-race, he says that his calm demeanor and his pilot's skills are a good part "of their phenomenal progression."

Zeff, his coach and teammates say, outshone many more experienced drivers during the course. But as
their first race loomed that November in Calgary. his back was giving him trouble. An X-ray revealed a fracture to the T3 vertebra as a result of a nasty crash. Zeff thought that might be the end of his fledgling career; Frank thought not, and stepped into the pilot's seat, in order to preserve momentum, until Zeff healed. All he needed was a brakeman.  Zeff called his brother-in-law, who works with the Phoenix Coyotes, an NHL hockey team, and asked him to recommend an athletic Jew who wasn't averse to risk. He suggested his cousin, Greaves, a Winnipeg semi-pro hockey player and skydiver when he isn't singing in his synagogue's Israeli folk group or working at his marketing job.  Greaves agreed. "I thought this would be a good opportunity to show my support for Israel and I thought it was cool," Greaves recalls, sipping Bailey's and coffee later in their condo.

But Frank's first attempt at running the course with him as brakeman was done, as he himself says, "on his head" - they flipped on their practice run. The course is long and icy and has multiple switchback
turns, which, if entered or exited at the wrong spot, will flip the sled over. This happens at upwards of 60 mph, and leaves very little reaction time. Greaves and Frank were left with burns on their arms. Before
the race, Frank told "Gravey" it probably wasn't "a good idea to ride. with me," and they bailed out.

By May 2003, Zeff had healed and was back as driver. The team came in second at the Alberta Cup on the Olympic track, and the threesome decided it was time to make it official and get Israeli citizenship. They
contacted their local aliyah emissary in Oakland, and flew to Israel, arriving on a Friday afternoon to a closed immigration office. Before long, though, they had Israeli identity cards and were giving the children of Metulah, where Zeff would like to buy a house, bobsledding clinics on a demo sled with wheels they had brought with them. They loved the experience and, says Frank, "once we did that, I knew we had to go all the way with this.

Since then, they've competed in the United States in the B league, performing well enough to qualify for Europe's elite World Cup circuit, which they're joining this month. They'll probably be near the back of the pack, their coach says, but "we'll take baby steps the whole way" to the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin. Their plan is to watch and learn during the remainder of this season, to funher their improvement over the following season, and to become one of the 28 fastest sleds in the world by the winter of 2005/2006. If that
happens, their blue and white bobsled will represent Israel in Turin.

They have neither sought nor desired any financial aid from Israel. Between the three of them, they have poured $50,000 of their own money into this endeavor and need to raise $100,000 more per year.

Heading for Europe, they arc all acutely aware of Israel's battered image there. But when asked if they have any hesitations representing Israel, they glare. "We have an intense desire to compete for the Israeli flag," says Greaves. All of them nod, then share a laugh at how easily Israelis question Americans about their Zionist credentials.

They say that bobsledding for Israel has brought them closer to the country and Jewry at large. "Before coming to town we always contact someone from the Jewish community," says Zeff. In a recent race at
Park City, Utah, the call led to a warm reception and a big pizza party, with all the town's Jewish kids waving Israeli flags.

In Lake Placid, a call to the local rabbi led to an immediate family away from home. Rabbi Alec Friedmann, a native of Durban, South Africa, is also a ski instructor and a prison chaplain for death row inmates. He told me he likes the Israeli bobsledding team because they're as "crazy as I am."

The rabbi phoned Andy Teig, a self-described "mountain Jew" (who was quickly given the name "the Wolf' by
Frank, because, he explained, like the character played by Harvey Keitel in "Pulp Fiction," Teig could get things done). Teig arranged lodging. He hooked up freshly baked challah on Friday afternoon and he
secured a private room in one of the town's best restaurants on a busy Friday night.  Greaves's wife, Tracy, said the blessing over the candles. The rabbi said Kiddush, and Zeff's fiancee, Sarah, made the motzi.

For dessert, a Russian Jew from the U.S. Bobsledding and Skeleton Federation joined the table. He brought a bottle of kosher vodka and a stream of stories. He told Zeff he knew some Russian Jews in Konigssee, Gennany, where they were headed for their first race of the circuit.  And Zeff assured me that as they continue
their journey, "the J-train will continue to roll." Final destination: Turin. Estimated time of arrival: February 10, 2006.

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