Skeleton sliding to South Korea: A new form of Jewish ambassadorship

“I was captivated by what I saw,” A.J. Edelman says of his first exposure to the winter sport skeleton.

ISRAEL’s ONLY active skeleton athlete, A.J. Edelman (photo credit: Courtesy)
ISRAEL’s ONLY active skeleton athlete, A.J. Edelman
(photo credit: Courtesy)
On August 8, a crowd-funding campaign was launched to help lessen the financial burden of Israel skeleton competitor A.J. Edelman’s training in the 2014/15 season.
Last year, Edelman had four successful races that landed him 91st in world rankings and qualified him for a spot in the World Championships in Igls, Austria. This coming season, he will be participating in 12-14 more races, through which he hopes to qualify for the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
Edelman, a self-identifying Orthodox Jew, grew on the east coast and attended college at MIT, but a gap year, which he spent studying at Yeshivat Lev Hatorah in Ramat Beit Shemesh, helped inspired him to join the Israel Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation after graduating in 2013.
The IBSF was founded in 2002. Originally called the “Israeli National Bobsleigh Team,” Skeleton was added to the program in 2009. In 2011, member Bradley Chalupski finished fifth place at the America’s Cup skeleton race in Lake Placid, New York, to win Israel’s first ever medal in the sport – and the last to date.
Edelman is Israel’s only active skeleton athlete for the 2014/15 season.
He is asking the public for donations partly because, the way he sees it, competing in an unconventional sport like skeleton – the cousin sport of bobsled – can help thwart others Jews from succumbing to the stereotype that they are “nonathletic and uncoordinated.”
It is a perception he vowed to fight during his senior year of college, when he was the only self-identifying Jew on his hockey team.
“When we went out to restaurants, everyone thought I couldn’t eat because the food hadn’t been blessed by a rabbi,” Edelman recalled to The Jerusalem Post this week. “They had never been exposed to one. I always knew Jews were thought to be uncoordinated, and I realized then that a huge part of what keeps that stereotype alive is that so many Jews fall into it themselves.”
The 24-year-old Edelman first learned of skeleton that year when he stumbled upon a competition on TV.
“I was captivated by what I saw,” he recalls. “It seemed like a challenging and exciting sport, and it had the added benefit of having fewer Jews than hockey does.”
Until then, Edelman had figured he would join the Israeli National Hockey Team after graduation.
After researching this new, unfamiliar sport, and trying it out, he was hooked.
“It is the most challenging and fun experience I have had the pleasure of participating in,” he said in an interview with Indiegogo, the global fundraising site hosting his campaign. “I was blessed to have been one of the few from my community to have reached a high level of sport. Jewish and Israeli athletes act as ambassadors of their community, people and homeland, and there are far too few.”
If there was any way to demonstrate that Jews were as athletically skilled and durable as any anyone else, it was by competing in skeleton.
Firstly, there is the sheer diversity of skills involved: a trying mix of strength, agility, power, intelligence and guts.
“It is the most athletic and challenging sport I’ve ever played,” said Edelman. “And I’ve been proficient in many sports.”
Immediately after lunging from a 50-meterlong sprint onto a 145 kilometer per hour plunge down the ice track, the athlete must calm himself, lower his heart rate to a normal level, and maintain a degree of mental clarity that most of us can only manage in peaceful, noiseless rooms.
“Any involuntary movement will apply pressure to the metal rudders and cause the sled to change direction.”
Edelman credits both his advantages and struggles in the sport to his career as an engineer.
“I think a lot,” he says. “More than your average person. For the most part that is helpful. If I am aware of how certain shoulder positions apply pressure to the sled, I can use them to dip lower, or ride higher in the corner, as needed. Too often, though, thinking translates into rigorous planning.
Many things can go wrong at 145 kilometers an hour over the course of one-and-a-half kilometers and 16 different curves. Skeleton is all about contingencies, about thinking at the right moments.”
For an Israeli to experience those challenges – to get involved in a sliding sport at all – is a massive feat in its own right. By doing so, Edelman hopes he can inspire other Jews to seek, discover, and explore unconventional sports as he has.
Winter sports are extremely underrepresented in Israel, for obvious geographical and logistical reasons.
Resources, coaches, and training facilities are all scarce and require ludicrous amounts of time, money, and travel. For off-season training, only two locations in North America – in Park City, Utah, and in Lake Placid, New York – have practice tracks for skeleton athletes.
With the demands and responsibilities of life, few skeleton competitors can afford to live near these places. Edelman has spent the last month in Park City but had to return to California on Monday to work his full time job as a product manager for Oracle. He still trains at a gym, but he now has to drive 210 kilometers daily to get there, and although he can still practice the sprinting aspect of the sport with an exercise called the “push,” he has to settle for indirect ways to practice the other aspects, like the explosive power needed for lunging onto the sled.
Under the direction of his two trainers – Jon Anderson, an IFBB pro bodybuilder known as the world’s strongest man (who also owns the gym where Edelman practices), and Jasha Faye, a former national level US Olympic lifter who competed in the Maccabiah – Edelman practices “snatches” and “clings” – intense lifting exercises, the kind you see on lifting competitions on TV, with bodybuilders hoisting heavy barbells over their heads with quick bursts of energy.
In contrast, The Ice Hockey Federation of Israel has been around since the 1980s, the Israeli National Hockey Team is ranked 32nd in the world, and the country has at least three rinks where aspiring players can practice. Although relatively unpopular among Israeli athletes, the sport is not underexposed to the point that it has become borderline impractical to pursue.
Edelman could have stuck with it.
However, he maintains that Israel’s near-total obliviousness to skeleton is, despite the obstacles it creates, a large part of what makes his role in the sport valuable.
“Many people who draw poorly as a child confirm right then and there that, for their whole lives, they can never become good painters or sculptors.
And Jews tend to be this way about sports: a lot Jews gave up on all the conventional sports long ago after realizing that they were lousy at soccer or football. However, they have not shut themselves off from sports they have never even seen. And if they can become ambitious about one sport, that will help to open their minds.”
For that reason, Edelman says the prospect of being watched by millions of people does not make him the least bit nervous: the more, the better.
“I want to be seen by as many Jews as possible,” he says. “I want them to see the Star of David on my uniform and feel like they can do it what I’m doing.”
Edelman’s campaign is tax-deductible. To view the campaign as well as some promotional videos, please visit the-winter-olympic-dream#/story