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Sunday, February 20, 2005

SHUL RUNNINGS: The Israeli Bobsled Team

Retrieved from http://www.csjl.org/articlereader.php?item=30

It sounds like a Disney sequel. In the arena of winter sports, dominated by countries like the U.S., Canada, Russia, Norway and Finland, Israel's involvement in the likes of bobsled competition seems rather unlikely. But the sport, known in Hebrew as "mizkhelet kerach” (literally: sliding on ice) has joined the ranks of Israeli hockey and Israeli figure skating on the international sports scene. If people find mildly amusing the sight of a bobsled in international competitions with a blue Star of David on its side, they have only to think back to the Jamaican team of 1988.

While the other winter sports received an original push from the massive Jewish emigration from the former Soviet Union, the history of Israeli bobsledding has its origins on the ski slopes of California's Sierra mountains.

It was there that winter sports enthusiast and former San Francisco 49'ers tight end John Frank, on a ski outing with friends, first entertained the idea of putting together a bobsled team. At the same time, he was thinking of something that might benefit Israel. The guy who once caught passes from teammate Joe Montana found a new partner in former U.S. Air Force pilot/Top Gun Aaron Zeff, another Californian. The two got the cooperation of Israel's sports authorities and received recognition by the International Bobsled Federation, then set about to recruit additional members.

Moshe Horowitz, who moved to Israel at age 3 from Connecticut, was encouraged by friends to try out for the team. Horowitz recently graduated from Columbia University, where he had been a student-athletes. "As a freshman, I ran the 50 and 100 meters and threw shot put, but after one year, I ended up switching to rugby, and played for the rugby team instead,” Horowitz told csjl.org. "In Israel I was in a flag football league. There was an article in the paper about the tryout, so I gave it a shot. I made the preliminary rounds, then ended up being chosen for the team.”

"Bobsledding isn't a sport that you start doing when you're a kid,” Horowitz continued. "For one thing, you can't really compete if you're under 100 pounds. Mostly you have athletes who come from other sports like football, rugby and track." Horowitz, a former tank platoon commander in the Israeli Defense Forces and avid outdoorsman, added, "I always felt I could compete at a high level of sport, I just never had the opportunity until now."

The fourth member of the team is Canadian-born David Greaves. All four hold dual citizenships. The team is coached by Ross Diminikovich of New Zealand, who represented his country in the two and four-man events in the 1988 Calgary Olympics, and was head coach of New Zealand in 1998 and 2002.

Israel's bobsled team became the first team to qualify for international competition in its first time out. Although bobsled consists of both two and four person teams, Israel only fields a two-man team at present. Explained Horowitz, "All we can afford right now is a two-man sled. The four-man sled, which runs about $50,000, is out of reach for us." Operating expenses run about $100,000 a season.

Team members are pretty serious about their training. "I train for 2 ½-3 hours five times a week," noted Horowitz. "About every 3-4 weeks we head over to Calgary where we do the actual ice training and coordinated team training." With Zeff fittingly serving as the team pilot, guiding the sled through its icy course of twists and turns at 70 miles an hour, Horowitz shares the brakeman duties with Frank. "Besides applying the brakes at the race's finish, the brakeman is the one who pushes the sled off," Horowitz explained. "The push start determines the speed you start out at and how stable you end up going through the course." "Riding in the back, you get knocked around a lot," Frank told a reporter.

For Horowitz, being on the Israeli bobsled team poses additional challenges. There is the need to balance his rigorous training and travel schedule with time spent with his fiancée. Then there is the matter of his Orthodox lifestyle. "I consider myself Orthodox," he told csjl.org, while noting that he has participated in competitions on Shabbat. "I feel comfortable in what I do. I don't claim to be a role model in this regard. Each athlete has to decide for himself how he chooses to handle this matter. I realize that there are Orthodox Jews who would not agree with the choices I make. (Team candidate Shahar Mozer, the last one cut from the team during tryouts, told a Jerusalem Post reporter, "Even if we were competing for a gold medal in the Olympics, I would not compete on Shabbat.") Some of my friends kid me about this, but in a friendly way."

For Horowitz, representing Israel and showcasing Israel through sports is something he had always hoped to be able to do, adding "I just never imagined it would be in the form of the Israeli bobsled team. It is a very rewarding experience to be able to represent Israel in this way."

Frank recalled an early competition that took place in the Bavarian town of Konigssee, a stone's throw from Hitler's country residence at Berchtesgaden. "I'm sure there are a lot of Holocaust survivors who were happy to see an Israeli going down the track," he told a reporter. "There were lots of 60- and 70-year old Germans in the stands clapping when we crossed the finish line. They understood the gravity of having an Israel team competing there. For me, it goes back as far as Jesse Owens in the 1936 Olympics when he thumbed his nose at Hitler."

Noted Coach Dominikovich, "It almost made me choke up. It's incredibly emotional for a non-Jewish person. I can't imagine what it's like for a Jew. Hitler had his 'Eagle's Nest' there. It looks over the track. It made me proud to see these guys do it. It's fabulous. It's more than a sport."

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