Israel's only skeleton athlete gears up for 2018 Olympics

The 26-year-old, who made aliyah in 2016, has stopped at nothing to achieve his goal of representing Israel at the Winter Olympics.

ISRAEL’s ONLY active skeleton athlete, A.J. Edelman (photo credit: Courtesy)
ISRAEL’s ONLY active skeleton athlete, A.J. Edelman
(photo credit: Courtesy)
A.J. Edelman has held nothing back in his chase of the Olympic dream.
Over the past four years, he has spent all his money and adopted the life of a nomad in order to hurtle himself down an icy track at speeds exceeding 130 kph. And all this so that he would perhaps one day represent Israel at the Winter Games.
It is a remarkable – some might say ridiculous – undertaking.
The perfect sport for an Israeli (Facebook/AJ Edelman-Israeli National Skeleton Athlete אדם אדלמן)
But it is set to become a reality on February 15 in Pyeongchang, South Korea, when Edelman will begin his participation in the skeleton competition at the Olympics.
The 26-year-old religiously observant Boston native, who made aliya in 2016, became the country’s 10th athlete to qualify, doubling the blue-and-white delegation’s previous high.
Israel has never sent more than five representatives to the Winter Games, but it will have seven athletes just in the figure skating competitions in South Korea, as well as a first-ever competitor in the skeleton.
Edelman’s ranking, at No. 61, in the International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation standings proved to be enough to secure a berth in Pyeongchang. In the skeleton, competitors ride a small sled down a frozen track while lying face down.
While Edelman has already vastly exceeded expectations simply by being among the 30 athletes to qualify for the men’s skeleton event at the Olympics, he is far from satisfied.
“My mission is not done. Making the games is not the goal,” Edelman told The Jerusalem Post. “Competing for Israel at the games and doing so in a way that is worthy of the honor they gave me, that is the goal.”
For Edelman, sports are only a means by which to achieve loftier goals. He often speaks with children at Jewish schools in the US about his career, talking at the Ramaz School in Manhattan earlier last week.
“It is a pleasure of mine to speak to school kids because it is a major part of my journey,” he explained. “My journey started as a mission to get more Israelis and Jews involved in sports. And every time I get to speak to kids it is basically a fulfillment of my mission.
“Israeli athletes are ambassadors of the country in a very special way and there are so many aspects to that role. One of those is encouraging other Israelis or Jews, who can become Israelis, that they can strive to perfect themselves and become ambassadors in the same way. Speaking to kids is the greatest accomplishment I can achieve.”
EDELMAN’S QUEST began in October 2013 when he was in his final year at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he also played ice hockey. After seeing the sport of bobsled on TV he immediately googled whether Israel had a team. He saw that Israel had a squad in skeleton and that evening sent an email to everyone who appeared on the Israel skeleton website.
“I thought that this is a huge challenge. There was something about undertaking such a massive challenge that I thought that if the challenge was successful it would have the impact that I wanted to have.
“I thought that if I wanted to do sport for the next 10 years of my life it had to be something that truly made an impact,” he added. “And the way in my mind that I thought would make the biggest impact is to represent Israel in the biggest sporting stage possible and that would inspire other Israelis to play winter sports.”
Edelman grew up in a Zionist family, but his personal connection with Israel was only truly cemented in the summer of 2006 while he was in the country during the Second Lebanon War.
“That summer changed my life. I turned everything around in my life from that point on. I knew Israel was the place I wanted to call home when I grew up,” he said.
Edelman’s initial goal was to qualify for the 2022 Winter Games.
“When I started the journey I wrote on a piece of paper that I had 2,884 days to reach my goal. But the more people said it would be impossible to do it in four years the more I wanted to accomplish it.
“I have a lot of chutzpah. If somebody tells me that something can’t be done it is the most motivating thing for me to try and make sure that it will be done. So I took the paper and crossed out 2,884 and wrote 1,442 and made it my goal to do it in four years.”
Edelman quit his job as a product manager at Oracle in California and sold everything he had before driving up to Calgary, Canada, to begin a new life as a skeleton athlete.
Despite having no national level funding and no consistent coaching, Edelman never lost hope.
“I just go from track to track training like a nutjob,” he said. “It became an obsession for me to do everything that I could to make sure Israel qualified for the 2018 Olympics. “Every bit of money that I earned from the job in California I spent on skeleton. I have no more money left. My coach was the pain. There is a lot of pain involved in hitting a wall. But the more I did it, the more experience I got and the more I was able to coach myself.”
Unsurprisingly, Edelman’s mother wasn’t all that pleased with his career change.
“She flipped out,” he said. “She lost it, she was really upset. Her first response was: ‘Who is going to date you?’ She’s a Jewish mother.
“But I think she has always been very proud. As a parent, you are very worried when your child does something very dangerous, and skeleton is extremely dangerous. But also I think she is incredibly proud of this whole journey and the will to do it.”
EDELMAN, who races with the image of Samson on his helmet, said he will eternally be grateful to the Olympic Committee of Israel for allowing him to represent the country. He hopes to do so for many more years to come, as long as he can afford it.
“I’m currently out of money but we will see what happens after the Olympics. If somebody will help me next season,” he explained.
But before he turns his focus to next season, Edelman aims to achieve the best possible result in Pyeongchang and bring honor to Israel.
“There is a pride as a Jew and as an Israeli in representing Israel that I don’t think can be felt by any athlete of any other nationality,” he said. “People a lot of time ask about my placement or my goal at the Olympics and if I want to win a medal. The dream of every athlete is to win a medal for their country.
“But as I told the children, you don’t do sports to make yourself rich. The only thing that I can get from this journey is the legacy that is left behind. If someone sees me in the Games and their perception of Israel changes or an Israeli kid sees me and says, ‘This is a really cool sport, I want to try that,’ that to me is more valuable than winning a gold medal. When you win a gold medal you have accomplished something for yourself, but when you can leave a legacy behind you have accomplished something for your country and that is much more powerful.”