(photo credit: Sarah Sechan)
Three-time Olympic gold medal-winning swimmer Jason Lezak was among some 500 Maccabiah athletes who were welcomed to Israel at a special reception at Ben-Gurion Airport on Friday afternoon.
The 32-year-old, who swam the crucial anchor leg in the US gold-medal winning 100 meter freestyle team, has given up the chance to swim at this summer's world championships in Rome to compete at the Maccabiah Games for the first time.
While the swimming competitions, which begin on July 19, are high on Lezak's list of priorities, he said he is also excited to tour the country in his first visit.
"I got here 10 days early and we have great plans for this stay. I want to see as much as possible and do as much as possible and I am waiting with bated breath to see every corner of this country," Lezak said.
More than 5,000 international athletes will compete in the Games, which begin on July 12, with the Opening Ceremony to be held at National Stadium in Ramat Gan on July 13.
Clad in matching team shirts, hundreds of Team USA athletes were welcomed to Israel with a brief reception which included the participation of a large group of onlookers in the arrivals hall, some of whom had been waiting over an hour.
Among the welcoming group was a band on stilts wearing "Maccabiah Chai" t-shirts and playing songs including "Shalom Aleichem" and "Ani Ma'amin."
Seeing their warm welcome, many athletes smiled and waved, appearing excited as they made their way through the the barriers surrounding the entrance into the arrivals hall.
Following the reception, the athletes wasted no time loading their bags onto several buses, leaving for the quick drive to Tel Aviv to get settled in and prepare for Shabbat.
Estimated to be the largest Maccabiah yet, the Games are held in Israel every four years to promote Jewish camaraderie and sportsmanship.
For the athletes, this trip is the culmination of months of hard work, from training to make the Maccabiah team to working with their new teammates.
Soon, they will be competing against Jewish athletes from 51 other countries, with the hope of winning the coveted medals.
In addition to competing, the delegation will also be touring Israel on what some of the athletes referred to as "a typical birthright trip" - climbing Masada, floating in the Dead Sea, rafting on the Jordan River, spending time in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and participating on a short archaeological dig.
While the athletes were undoubtedly excited for the games to begin, they were equally excited to simply be in Israel, embracing the country and its culture with their teammates.
A small group of triathletes, some of the last to load their bags onto the buses, were no exception.
"This is my second time in Israel. It's just as good as the first, and we've only just landed. I can't wait for Maccabiah," said Bradley Smith.
Fellow triathletes Marcy Matthew, Chad Mahakian, and Eva Solomon shared his sentiments, expressing their enthusiasm that months of practicing and waiting have finally paid off and they have finally arrived.
The triathlon will be held in Tiberias on July 17.
"I'm really excited to be here and compete and tour," said Matthew
"We're all triathletes. We can't wait to compete."