For more on the Frozen Chosen, please visit www.israelibobsled.com

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."

Saturday, February 19, 2005

Ex-49er is one of 'Frozen Chosen' - Tight end Frank's epiphany leads to Israeli bobsled team

By John Crumpacker - Retrieved from http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2005/02/19/SPGSNBE3UC1.DTL&ao=all

Jamaica had its "Cool Runnings,'' the film about a group of athletes from that Caribbean country making an unlikely foray into bobsled racing.

Israel may soon have its "Frozen Chosen,'' as a disparate group of Jewish men embrace the same improbable dream.

"We got a lot of mileage out of that'' moniker, said John Frank, the former 49ers tight end who is spearheading Israel's bobsled effort.

The group includes the 42-year-old Frank, a 49er-turned plastic surgeon; an ex-U.S. fighter pilot; a former Canadian sprinter; and a young Israeli from Jerusalem who represents the country's future in the sport.
"I had to get that movie by John Candy to make sure it was all right,'' said Frank's mother, Barbara Frank, of Pittsburgh, Pa. "I said 'Just close your eyes.' I think he was always like that as a kid, going to the unknown. Nothing surprises me.''

The idea came in a flash of inspiration. One thing about epiphanies, the lightbulb can click on just about anywhere.

For Frank, it was on a chair lift in the Sierra.

"The genesis of bobsled is the genesis of where most ideas come from -- the chair lift, golf course or fly fishing -- and in this case it was a chair lift,'' Frank said. "I was skiing in the Sierra a couple years ago. When you're in the mountains, 8,000 feet, it's sunny and crisp, you're riding the chair lift, that's when I've been the most creative in my life.''

Frank, who won two Super Bowl rings in his five years with the 49ers, is now a plastic surgeon with a Manhattan practice. Despite being 15 years retired from pro football and leading a comfortable lifestyle, he decided to humble himself and try something new.

If guys from a tropical island could do it, so could some committed chaps representing a country where at least it snows a little bit, Frank reasoned.

Under the Eagle's Nest 

"I was with some friends. We were doing backcountry skiing, some aerials, but nothing like the X Games,'' Frank said. "We were having a hoot. After you go into the backcountry and do some aerials, you want more and more. Bobsled was the next challenge.''

In short order, Frank recruited three younger men willing to give a nod to the bob, took a flight to Israel to gain citizenship, wriggled into a racing suit complete with Kevlar vest, and finished a run in the historically poignant Bavarian town of Konigssee, Germany -- to the applause of elderly Germans who appreciated the bittersweet significance of seeing an Israeli bobsled team competing at that location.

Sixty years ago, Adolf Hitler would have looked down upon the future bobsled track from the "Eagle's Nest,'' his stronghold in the Bavarian Alps near Berchtesgaden. Hitler's aerie, built in 1935 when he thought the Nazi empire would last 1,000 years, was blown up in 1952.

"I'm sure there are a lot of Holocaust survivors who liked to see an Israeli going down the track,'' Frank said. "There were a lot of 60-, 70-year- old Germans in the stands clapping when we came across the finish line. That was breathtaking. If I never raced again, it would be satisfying. They understood the gravity of having an Israeli team competing there.''

Said Frank's bobsled coach, New Zealander Ross 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 Jewish person. 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.''

Jet pilot also Chosen 

Frank's fellow "Frozen Chosen'' are Aaron Zeff, 34, of San Francisco, formerly a pilot of a craft designed to go a little faster than a bobsled -- a U.S. Air Force Phantom Jet; David Greaves, 37, a former track athlete from Winnipeg, Canada; Moshe Horowitz, 24, of Jerusalem; and Dominikovich, a former Olympic bobsledder for New Zealand living in Calgary.

With a little luck and a lot of skill (or a little skill and a lot of luck), Frank's group could earn a qualifying spot in next year's Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy. The field will include the top 28 sleds as determined in World Cup competition in Europe and North America.

Dominikovich said the United States, Germany, Switzerland, Russia, Canada and the Czech Republic are all but guaranteed to qualify two sleds each. That's 12 sleds right there. Ten more spots will go to the next highest finishers in World Cup competition. A series of race-offs determines the final six.

Israel figures to be in the last group with such non-bobsled powers as Mexico, New Zealand, Australia, Britain and France.

"They definitely have a chance to compete,'' Dominikovich said. "It will be tough to make it, but they have as a good a chance as anyone to be the best of the rest of the nontraditional bobsled countries. It'll be very difficult but it's not to say you can't do it.''

That's Frank in a nutshell.

"Somebody had to do it and leave it to him, he'll do it,'' Barbara Frank said of her son.

Doctor's hands took beating 

Frank came out of Ohio State in 1984 as an undersized tight end and went to the 49ers on the second round of the draft in a sublime example of right place, right time. By the time his abbreviated five-year career was over, he had won two Super Bowl rings from those championship teams in 1984 and '88.

In the process, Frank caught 65 passes for 662 yards and 10 touchdowns, but was better known for his feisty disposition and his notable encounters blocking Lawrence Taylor of the New York Giants.

Frank caught two passes from Joe Montana for 15 yards in the final game of his career, Super Bowl XXIII. He retired after the game to finish his medical studies. With a goal of becoming a surgeon, Frank couldn't afford to have his hands mangled playing any more football.

"John knew what his calling was and what he wanted to do,'' Montana said last year in a 49ers' game program. "I think it's great when people have that kind of foresight.''

Frank and friends are scheduled to compete in bobsled's World Championships this weekend in Calgary in their continuing quest to improve the country's standing in the sport. Except for the sport of ice skating, Israel has never had any other representatives in the Winter Olympics.

"It seemed as if we were doing it for Israel it would be a worthy cause while being apolitical,'' Frank said. "When you hear about the strife in the Middle East, you feel removed, isolated. I felt the same way about Iraq and Afghanistan. This was a nice way to be connected to my roots. Growing up in a Jewish family in Pennsylvania, that's my roots and heritage. That's one way to remain connected.''

Sounds like car accident 

Bobsled is a sport with a simple premise but a difficult execution. In two-man bob, there's a brakeman whose only responsibilities are to give the sled a hellacious push at the top of the course and to apply the brakes upon crossing the finish line.

The masterful work is done by the pilot as he guides the sled down an icy chute of turns and descents at speeds reaching 70 miles per hour.

Most American athletes who give bobsled a try come from backgrounds in football and track and field, because the sport requires power and explosive quickness. Track athlete Vonetta Flowers tried out for bobsled in 2000 and ended up winning a gold medal (with Jill Bakken) at Salt Lake City in 2002 as part of the first group of women to compete in the sport in the Olympics.

In Zeff, the "Frozen Chosen'' have a literal pilot from the U.S. Air Force guiding their blue-and-white craft. Frank is happy doing the heavy lifting, but not for long. At 42, he wants to give way to the 24-year-old Horowitz sooner rather than later.

"He's a terrific athlete,'' Frank said. "We had tryouts last spring in Tel Aviv and he was the standout. Hopefully, he'll move to pilot and we'll have more Israelis. We're just getting oriented in the sport.

"If we don't make the grade for Torino, we'll shoot for Vancouver (in 2010). This is like the Jamaicans; 1988 was their first Olympics and now they're respectable. This is a long-term commitment.''

Frank and Zeff represented Israel in World Cup competition last year and finished in the low 30s at the World Championships. "It took me four, five months to where I felt I could compete internationally,'' Frank said. "It was pretty remarkable to be competing with world-class athletes.''

Frank described riding in a bobsled the first time, 2 1/2 years ago in Calgary, as "thrilling but also overwhelming.''

"Riding in the back, it's real gritty,'' he said. "You get knocked around a lot. It's so noisy. It sounds like you're in a car accident. You're really banged around and you can't see anything when you're upside down. Even the best pilots turn the sled upside down.''

Frank hopes to remain right-side up long enough to see Israel become respectable in a sport in which it has no past and an uncertain future. Still, that's a cool prospect for the "Frozen Chosen.''

Friday, February 18, 2005

The Frozen Chosen: How the Israeli Bobsled Team Slid Into Existence

By Aimee Berg - Retrieved from http://www.forward.com/articles/2971/

If you think an Israeli bobsled team seems like an alien concept, you are not alone. Call the Israeli Olympic Committee, and chances are you’ll be told that the team doesn’t exist. “We don’t have a bobsled team. Not from Israel. No, no, no,” office manager Etty Glickman said. Her colleague, Rakeset Waintraub, had said the same thing on an earlier call: “There is no bobsled team.”

Imagine how surprised they are going to be February 18, when the “Israel One” sled is called to the start of the 2005 Bobsled World Championships in Calgary. And try convincing team co-founders Aaron Zeff and John Frank that the team didn’t exist at the 2004 World Championships in Konigssee, Germany, when they competed in a sled emblazoned with the Star of David on a track that was within view of the Eagle’s Nest, Hitler’s secret retreat. Both men say that seeing Israeli flags in that valley marked one of the most memorable moments of their athletic careers — a strong statement, considering Frank won two Super Bowl rings as a tight end for the San Francisco 49ers.

In fact, Israel has been competing internationally for the past two winters, since the Israeli Bobsled Federation was formed in 2002, supposedly with the Israeli Olympic Committee’s blessing.

Yet when the team brought a sled to Israel on a recruiting trip last year, “We had to bring a videotape to show Tel Aviv customs officials that it was a piece of athletic equipment, not a submarine or contraband,” Zeff said.
Recognition is only part of the battle for the foursome, which calls itself the Frozen Chosen. On a two-man sled, there is only a driver and a brakeman. Zeff is a driver 99% of the time, and the other members compete for the brakeman spot.

The notion that their Middle Eastern homeland in the desert needed a bobsled team began when Zeff went to the Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002 and stirred Frank’s enthusiasm by holding his cell phone up to the track as a sled went by. When he returned, the duo signed up for driving school in Calgary. Since Zeff was a Top Gun in the United States Air Force and had flown F-4 Phantom aircraft, he seemed to be a natural for the bobsled pilot position.

But Frank actually drove in the team’s first race situation.  “They said, ‘Israel to the start position,’ which never had been said at a bobsled race before,” recalled Winnipeg-native David Greaves, an alternate brakeman who had been picked up as a spare brakeman days earlier. “I got the chills. John looked at me and said, ‘Sh’ma Yisrael,’ and away we went.” (They crashed and called it a day.)

It takes decades to create bobsled champions, yet the team has made quick progress in the two-man event (because Israel doesn’t own a four-man sled).

As a result, they are trying to become the first bobsledders to represent Israel at the 2006 Olympic Winter Games in Torino, Italy.

Israel has sent only six athletes to the Winter Games. Five of them were figure skaters, and one competed in short-track speed skating. None has won a medal since Israel made its debut in 1994, although ice dancers Galit Chait and Sergei Sakhnovsky placed sixth in Salt Lake City.

Realistically, the team could meet the Olympic qualifying criteria put forth by the International Bobsled Federation — by ranking among the top 22 next year in the World Cup standings or by placing first or second at the North American Challenge Cup race in January — but the Israeli Olympic Committee could require it to meet even more stringent standards, possibly preventing it from competing in Torino. (Those requirements have yet to be formalized.)

The mishegas doesn’t end there. The four men that constitute Israel’s A-team also grapple with geographical and financial issues because the team is spread out across North America: Leading up to the 2005 Worlds, Zeff was training in San Francisco, where he owns a real estate business; Frank, a plastic surgeon, was pumping iron in New York City after performing reconstructions all day; the team’s newest recruit, Moshe Horowitz of Jerusalem, was running sprints in Central Park and lifting weights at Columbia University, where he recently completed his bachelor’s degree in political science, and Greaves, who just recovered from an abdominal tear, was embarking on a multi-city tour singing with the Sarah Sommer Chai Folk Ensemble.
Meanwhile, the team’s coach, Ross Dominikovich of New Zealand, was stationed in Calgary to intercept the team’s sled, which was being driven from Lake Placid, N.Y.

It might sound complicated, but it’s not unique. People forget that only “the top 10 teams in the world compete and train full time; the balance is like us, putting together their own teams,” Zeff explained. “There are only 12 tracks in the world in just nine countries,” so although Israel is not among them, “it’s no different for most of the others,” he said.

No other team, however, has a makeshift mezuzah on the inside of its sled and no other team walks from the finish line to the start house to avoid taking a motorized vehicle if Friday’s training happens to drift slightly past sundown on a short winter’s day.

In its first season (2003-04), Israel ranked fifth among 15 teams competing in the America’s Cup series, a notch below the World Cup.

This year, the team ranked 11 of 22 sleds in the series, despite having to forfeit one-third of the races after Zeff’s wife gave birth to their first child, Ezekiel.

At the World Championships this week, “We want to finish in the top 50% and knock off teams we haven’t beaten.” Zeff said. “We think we can beat Jamaica, New Zealand, Japan and Greece,” which now includes 11-time NHL All-Star defenseman Chris Chelios.

Since the team usually trains on the Calgary ice, it will have a home-track advantage, but a medal is out of the question because the field will include traditional superpowers such as Switzerland, Canada, Russia, Germany and the United States.

Although the race does not count toward Olympic qualifying, it will be an important step toward convincing the Israeli Olympic Committee that its team is serious and that sending a sled to the Olympics will be an essential steppingstone for the success of future generations.

Perhaps the nation will realize this the way Horowitz did when he learned he had made the team: “It hit me like a fluorescent light bulb. You know how it takes a minute before it goes on?”

Aimee Berg is a writer based in New York who competes in just about everything except bobsledding.