By: Rachel Eisen
Gymnast Aly Raisman got everyone’s attention at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London when she performed her floor routine to “Hava Nagila.” It was pretty cool, but Aly isn’t the only Jewish Olympian out there. As a figure skater, I have an affinity for winter sports. So with the 2014 Winter Olympics beginning in a few days, I thought it would be cool to take a look at some Jewish winter athletes who have won Olympic medals. The International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame has a complete list, but here the highlights from the past decade or so:
In Salt Lake City in 2002, figure skater Sarah Hughes, whose mother is Jewish, took everyone by surprise when she won the ladies’ gold medal. In fourth after the short program, Sarah was considered out of contention for the top spot. Under the rules of the 6.0-scale scoring system (which has since been replaced by a total points system), a skater in first, second, or third place after the short program could win it all by winning the long program, but a skater in fourth place could only win it all if she won the long and the skater in first place after the short fell to third or below. In 2002, the favorite Michelle Kwan, who’d narrowly lost out on the gold in Nagano in 1998 to Tara Lipinski, was in first after the short program but dropped to third in the long after a fall, allowing Sarah to take the gold. Michelle ended up with the bronze behind silver medalist Russian Irina Slutskaya (who is of Jewish descent).
Also in 2002, Jewish Rhode Island native Sara DeCosta-Hayes took home the silver medal with the women’s ice hockey team, after having been on the gold medal team in 1998.
In Turin in 2006, ice dancer Benjamin Agosto, whose mother is Jewish, won the silver medal with partner Tanith Belbin. This was the first Olympic medal for an American ice dance team since 1976. Also in Turin, Jewish ladies competitor Sasha Cohen took home the silver and the aforementioned Irina Slutskaya won the bronze.
In Vancouver in 2010, ice dancer Charlie White, whose mother is Jewish, won the silver medal with his partner Meryl Davis. The next year, they became the first American ice dance team ever to win gold at the World Figure Skating Championships, a feat they repeated in 2013. Meryl and Charlie just won their record-setting sixth straight national championship and are heading to Sochi to compete once more for the gold, with hopes to come out on top in a close rematch with the defending Olympic Champions, who represent Canada. (The rival teams share a coach.)
Also in 2010, bobsledder Steve Mesler was part of the gold medal-winning team in the four-man race.
Coming up: Jewish and competing in Sochi is Jason Brown, the 2014 US men’s figure skating silver medalist. According to some recent tweets, he is an alum of a URJ camp in Wisconsin. Jason is only 19 and lacks the quadruple jump needed to succeed consistently at the senior men’s level, but he’s an incredible performer and very technically proficient. He already has won a major senior international medal this season. Max Aaron, who is also Jewish and won the bronze at the US Championships behind Jason, just missed qualifying for the Olympics where the US only has two men’s spots.
Despite the usual lack of winter weather, there are even some Israeli winter sport athletes. Ice dancer Galit Chait was born in Israel and trained in Russia and the United States. She and Sergei Sakhnovski represented Israel at the 1998, 2002, and 2006 Olympics and came in 14th, 6th, and 8th respectively. At the post-Olympic 2002 World Championships, they won the bronze medal. Chait went on to coach the Russian-born, Israeli-raised sibling ice dancing team of Alexandra and Roman Zaretski, who represented Israel at the 2006 and 2010 Olympics, where they came in 22nd and 10th. During the 2009-2010 season, when ice dance teams were required to skate to folk music for one of their programs, the Zaretskis skated to “Hava Nagila.” No Israeli athlete has ever medaled at a Winter Games, however. Based on results at a qualifying competition during this season, figure skaters representing Israel earned one spot for the men’s competition and one team for the pairs competition. Unfortunately, the Israeli Olympic Committee has stricter qualification rules than the International Olympic Committee and likely won’t send the skaters who earned those spots, according to article in Tablet. The Sochi website also lists an Israeli speed skater, but it’s unclear if he will actually compete.
I really wish there were more Jewish Winter Olympians I could tell you about, but let me tell you, researching this was not an easy task. There seem to be a lot more Jewish Summer Olympians than Winter Olympians. The “List of Jewish American Sportspeople” page on Wikipedia only has skiing, hockey, and figure skating when it comes to Winter sports. The lone skier came in sixth at the 2006 Turin games, and none of the men’s hockey players have ever been on a medal-winning team. Apparently our people are not fans of the cold. I’m not really sure why. You’d think after all those years of wandering in the desert, we’d be desperate for a break from the heat!