In His Own Words: Coach Rick Rothman - The Maccabi Games Experience

The 19th World Maccabi Games, otherwise known as the Jewish Olympics, held every four years in Israel-the year after the Olympic Games. Jewish Athletes from 80 counties participate in sports at the youth, junior, open, masters, and Paralympic levels in sports ranging from basketball, baseball, swimming, karate, judo, volleyball, beach volleyball, equestrian ice hockey, field hockey, golf, tennis, futsal, rugby, squash, cricket, gymnastics, chess, rhythmic gymnastics, badminton, soccer, fencing, table tennis, half-marathon, and of course, track and field.

In 2009, I had the honor of being asked to coach the US Junior Track and Field team.  We had athletes from all over the country, including Ashley Lesnik, and Matt Evans from  Cypress Bay High School, and Hana Sladick from the Naples area.  The team brought back five silver and four bronze medals.

This summer, from July 1st till July 31st, I again had the honor of coaching the US Junior track and field teams.  Athletes from across the United States send in applications, and from those we pick the best athletes available.  This time we had eight girls and  nine boys, featuring Hallie Meland from Ransom-Everglades and Jordana Kimelman from Spanish River.  The whole team-juniors, open, and half-marathon- had a very Boca-South Florida feel.  The Track and Field/Half Marathon  chairman is Rob Fellman-a former Spanish River and University of Maryland athlete; the open coach-Alex Smolka-FAU head coach; Half Marathon and distance athletes-Melissa Perlman-former Spanish River athlete and now, our assistant coach; Adam Simon, Jordan Zwick, Ryan Davis, and Eric Kessler-former FAU athletes; and Jordan Shilit-a former Tampa Jesuit runner.

The Half-Marathon took place at the National Park at Ramat Gan, on July 23rd.  The Track Meet happened on the 24th and 25th at Hadar Yosef-the National Track and Field stadium, with the open, and junior events intermixed.

The first week of the US team experience is called Israel connect.  We wake early to train from 7:00 a.m. till 9:00 a.m.  Then back to our Shefayim Kibbutz hotel for showers, lunch and then off for various touring of the state of  Israel- the beach at Hertzilia, Tel Aviv museums and Shook Street  (outdoor markets), Jerusalem-the Western, Wall, water tunnel under the city, old, historic sites; and archeological dig site and spelunking; the National Cemetery and Yad Vashem (the holocaust memorial); the dead sea, Masada, and Dinner at a Bedouin village.  Sleep is definitely at a minimum.  One thing about the Maccabi Games-their emphasis is on CULTURAL, and SOCIAL aspects, then athletics.  Sometimes, athletic performance takes a back seat to all the touring and activities.

The second week, is the official start of the games-the open athletes move to a hotel in Tel Aviv, and ALL the junior athletes from every sport move to Shefayim.

We then all travelled to the opening ceremonies at Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem. The opening ceremony was spectacular, with Aly Raisman lighting the torch to open the games.  Marching in with the United States team, as well as the teams from the other 79 countries is a great highlight. The ceremonies do rival the Olympic Games for a spectacular show.  One difference-trading among countries-starts immediately at the opening ceremony.

The next week the games start in earnest. In the effort of total disclosure, bus transportation was not the greatest.  The Israelis set-up a Junior Hub at Wingate-their National Sports Institute.  This was also the site of rugby, swimming, volleyball, and other sports. They had activity areas for the Juniors-internet, and outdoor disco, games, and other things for the Juniors.  Unfortunately, they piped loud music in EVERYWHERE, and had no place for the coaches to relax and congregate. We also had to travel there everyday for lunch. My experience with the food there now makes the school cafeteria food I ate for 33 years of my teaching career look like gourmet fare. I also decided that when bad high school teachers die, this is the hell they have to spend eternity at. We did have mixed times for practices, which revolved around the uncertain bus transportation.

The first event was the road 10K and half-marathon.  The 10k runners started 10 minutes before the half-marathon team. The United States took first place in both the men’s and women’s 10k.  The half-marathon is a team run-consisting of five members-three which score exactly like a cross country race. There was a festive atmosphere, as we waited for the 10k and half-marathon runners to finish.  I, of course, was biasedly interested in how our assistant coach-Melissa Perlman, would perform in only her second half-marathon.  Adding to the competition, was the fact that Ellyn Snider, our recently graduated senior on the way to Texas, ran a Half Marathon in Chicago, in 1 hour and 30 minutes. The challenge was there for Melissa.

The Half-marathon runners started to finish, led by Ethiopian Israelis, who took, the first spots. The Israel team won the men’s division with the USA finishing in the silver position. Now the women started to finish. Canada had the first runner-who ran a blistering pace.  Next, in second was Emily Mossier from Miami of Ohio. Then, to my delight and pride, Melissa finished in the bronze position-1 Hour 29.32. The U.S. also finished fifth and sixth. The United States women brought home the gold, with Melissa finishing with an individual bronze.


Now it was time for the track and field events. The strong teams were Israel, the US, Great Britain, and Australia.  The strength of our team was the distance runners (yes, I was a little prejudicial in that fact-but we also took the best sprinters that applied).  Our first medal was Adam Markun who won a bronze in the 100-he unfortunately pulled his hamstring and was done for the meet, which affected our 4 x 100.  The Florida contigent for Juniors-Hallie Meland was sixth in the 100 meter hurdles, the pole vault, and a bronze in the 4 x 100.  Jordana Kimelman was tenth in the 1500 and illness prevented her from running in the 3000.  Overall, the US took home six gold and eight bronze-one of the best showings (to my knowledge) of the United States Junior team-a reflection of the  athletes we brought.  The rundown of medals-Gold-Tal Braude-California-Gold in the 1500 and 3000 and bronze in the 4 x 400; Shelby Hummel-Missouri-Gold in the 800, 1500, and 3000 and a bronze in the 4 x 400, Keren Hendel-California-Gold in the Pole Vault ( she would’ve of finished second in the open, if she was allowed to do both), and a bronze in the 4 x 100; Matt Calem-Virginia-bronze in the 1500, 3000 and 4 x 400; Sarah Leiserowitz-Nevada-Bronze in 800 and 4 x 400; Mitchell “Jake” Tuckerman-Ohio-bronze in the 800.  Jacob Slann-South Carolina-bronze in the 4 x 400; Rose Paskoff-California and Ariel Becker-California-bronze in the 4 x 100 and 4 x 400. Other athletes on the team who participated, but unfortunately, didn’t  medal-Dan Barlev-New Jersey, Sarah Stern-California, Nir Glazer-Michigan, Andrew Zuckerman-Maryland (also injured), and Jason Kahan-California.

After the meet, we got to see other sports compete, did some more touring, and hung out a lot. One of the differences between coaching the open and junior athletes is that the Junior coaches are the supervisors over their athletes for the ENTIRE three weeks, where the open athletes are free to roam as they please. The junior athletes on our team, got along very well, and behaved in an honorable manner. The worst thing they did, was go for runs after curfew, because they couldn’t get one in during the day. I couldn’t argue with their dedication.

We finished up with the closing ceremonies-a great party-again at Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem.  More trading, time with athletes and coaches from other teams, and generally spending time with new and old friends from the competitions. 

We then had a long wait , the next day, and airplane flight back to our homes. Many tearful goodbyes, and in some cases, glad to see you go goodbyes.

I have to say, in reflection,  there were great events and some not so good memories from this trip. It was a great honor and experience to be asked and participate in the 19th Maccabi Games.  I would go again, but only as an open coach.  Every experience of this type is a great one-there is always something new to learn, to share, to have great memories, to meet and talk with coaches from other countries, and learn from open athletes, and juniors, and to spend time with people from across America and the world. 

Of course, the major experience of spending time in my Jewish homeland, and get in touch, even further, with my Jewish heritage.  I have been fortunate, in my coaching career to have many great highlights.  I can say, this was one of the greatest.