If you think an Israeli bobsled team seems like an alien concept, you are not alone. Call the Israeli Olympic Committee, and chances are you’ll be told that the team doesn’t exist. “We don’t have a bobsled team. Not from Israel. No, no, no,” office manager Etty Glickman said. Her colleague, Rakeset Waintraub, had said the same thing on an earlier call: “There is no bobsled team.”
Imagine how surprised they are going to be February 18, when the “Israel One” sled is called to the start of the 2005 Bobsled World Championships in Calgary. And try convincing team co-founders Aaron Zeff and John Frank that the team didn’t exist at the 2004 World Championships in Konigssee, Germany, when they competed in a sled emblazoned with the Star of David on a track that was within view of the Eagle’s Nest, Hitler’s secret retreat. Both men say that seeing Israeli flags in that valley marked one of the most memorable moments of their athletic careers — a strong statement, considering Frank won two Super Bowl rings as a tight end for the San Francisco 49ers.
In fact, Israel has been competing internationally for the past two winters, since the Israeli Bobsled Federation was formed in 2002, supposedly with the Israeli Olympic Committee’s blessing.
Yet when the team brought a sled to Israel on a recruiting trip last year, “We had to bring a videotape to show Tel Aviv customs officials that it was a piece of athletic equipment, not a submarine or contraband,” Zeff said.
Recognition is only part of the battle for the foursome, which calls itself the Frozen Chosen. On a two-man sled, there is only a driver and a brakeman. Zeff is a driver 99% of the time, and the other members compete for the brakeman spot.
The notion that their Middle Eastern homeland in the desert needed a bobsled team began when Zeff went to the Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002 and stirred Frank’s enthusiasm by holding his cell phone up to the track as a sled went by. When he returned, the duo signed up for driving school in Calgary. Since Zeff was a Top Gun in the United States Air Force and had flown F-4 Phantom aircraft, he seemed to be a natural for the bobsled pilot position.
But Frank actually drove in the team’s first race situation.
“They said, ‘Israel to the start position,’ which never had been said at a bobsled race before,” recalled Winnipeg-native David Greaves, an alternate brakeman who had been picked up as a spare brakeman days earlier. “I got the chills. John looked at me and said, ‘Sh’ma Yisrael,’ and away we went.” (They crashed and called it a day.)
It takes decades to create bobsled champions, yet the team has made quick progress in the two-man event (because Israel doesn’t own a four-man sled).
As a result, they are trying to become the first bobsledders to represent Israel at the 2006 Olympic Winter Games in Torino, Italy.
Israel has sent only six athletes to the Winter Games. Five of them were figure skaters, and one competed in short-track speed skating. None has won a medal since Israel made its debut in 1994, although ice dancers Galit Chait and Sergei Sakhnovsky placed sixth in Salt Lake City.
Realistically, the team could meet the Olympic qualifying criteria put forth by the International Bobsled Federation — by ranking among the top 22 next year in the World Cup standings or by placing first or second at the North American Challenge Cup race in January — but the Israeli Olympic Committee could require it to meet even more stringent standards, possibly preventing it from competing in Torino. (Those requirements have yet to be formalized.)
The mishegas doesn’t end there. The four men that constitute Israel’s A-team also grapple with geographical and financial issues because the team is spread out across North America: Leading up to the 2005 Worlds, Zeff was training in San Francisco, where he owns a real estate business; Frank, a plastic surgeon, was pumping iron in New York City after performing reconstructions all day; the team’s newest recruit, Moshe Horowitz of Jerusalem, was running sprints in Central Park and lifting weights at Columbia University, where he recently completed his bachelor’s degree in political science, and Greaves, who just recovered from an abdominal tear, was embarking on a multi-city tour singing with the Sarah Sommer Chai Folk Ensemble.
Meanwhile, the team’s coach, Ross Dominikovich of New Zealand, was stationed in Calgary to intercept the team’s sled, which was being driven from Lake Placid, N.Y.
It might sound complicated, but it’s not unique. People forget that only “the top 10 teams in the world compete and train full time; the balance is like us, putting together their own teams,” Zeff explained. “There are only 12 tracks in the world in just nine countries,” so although Israel is not among them, “it’s no different for most of the others,” he said.
No other team, however, has a makeshift mezuzah on the inside of its sled and no other team walks from the finish line to the start house to avoid taking a motorized vehicle if Friday’s training happens to drift slightly past sundown on a short winter’s day.
In its first season (2003-04), Israel ranked fifth among 15 teams competing in the America’s Cup series, a notch below the World Cup.
This year, the team ranked 11 of 22 sleds in the series, despite having to forfeit one-third of the races after Zeff’s wife gave birth to their first child, Ezekiel.
At the World Championships this week, “We want to finish in the top 50% and knock off teams we haven’t beaten.” Zeff said. “We think we can beat Jamaica, New Zealand, Japan and Greece,” which now includes 11-time NHL All-Star defenseman Chris Chelios.
Since the team usually trains on the Calgary ice, it will have a home-track advantage, but a medal is out of the question because the field will include traditional superpowers such as Switzerland, Canada, Russia, Germany and the United States.
Although the race does not count toward Olympic qualifying, it will be an important step toward convincing the Israeli Olympic Committee that its team is serious and that sending a sled to the Olympics will be an essential steppingstone for the success of future generations.
Perhaps the nation will realize this the way Horowitz did when he learned he had made the team: “It hit me like a fluorescent light bulb. You know how it takes a minute before it goes on?”
Aimee Berg is a writer based in New York who competes in just about everything except bobsledding.