“I want to challenge the perception of what Jews and Israelis can do in sports.”
That was the theme that A.J. Edelman kept returning to during an interview just hours after the 26-year-old learned that he would be competing at the 2018 Winter Olympics.
On Wednesday, Edelman became Israel’s first-ever Olympic athlete in skeleton, a sport in which you slide face-first down a frozen track on a small sled. The Brookline, Massachusetts native will represent his adopted country next month in PyeongChang, South Korea.
The Forward spoke with the “Hebrew Hammer” about making Aliyah, representing a Mediterranean country in an icy sport, and more:
Jeffrey Boxer: What inspired you to take up skeleton?
AJ Edelman: I was playing hockey throughout my youth, and achieved a level of proficiency to the point where I played at MIT. One of the things that I realized while playing at a higher level was that very few other Jews — or people that identified proudly as Jews — were at that same level.
It was disappointing to think that many Jews thought of sports not as an outlet at which they could go far, but as a recreational thing to do with friends. Everyone knows the stereotype that Jews don’t do sports. We are overrepresented everywhere but in sports. So I really wanted to change that and if I moved forward, do something that had a major impact.
The biggest platform is the Olympic Games, and as a proud Zionist, there’s no greater honor than representing Israel at the Olympics. As I was thinking about this problem, the Olympic bobsled trials were on TV. I thought, ‘I’d love to do that, it looks like a thrill.’ I messaged the Israeli Bobsled [and Skeleton] Federation that night, and things just went from there.
They sent me to a training school in Lake Placid during the Socchi games. I tried it and absolutely fell in love with it.
Talk to me about the decision to make Aliyah and to represent Israel.
My family is extremely Zionist. My life had a major turning point when I visited Israel during the Second Lebanon War in 2006. After that summer, I went from a terrible student to a diligent student. Something about that summer resonated with me, and I’ve known since then that Israel was a place that I was going to call home
I went the Yeshiva route in 2010 after graduating, and it was always about Israel. There was no way that I could do this sport, or any activity, for four years if I didn’t have such a point of pride. Israel is that source of pride for me.
You call yourself the Hebrew Hammer. Where’d that come from?
The original Israeli team was called the “Frozen Chosen,” and that team really paved the way for the sport in Israel.
What I wanted to do was cement my own legacy, I didn’t want to take that nickname. A few years ago I was lonely on tour away from my family during Hanukkah, and I was watching “The Hebrew Hammer” streaming online. I thought, ‘that is the most hilarious nickname, I love it.’
The nickname really took off when I showed up to the track, they asked what they should call me, and they loved it. I appreciate the nickname, but my mom hates it.
If you’re not having fun then you’re just getting beaten down. I don’t take it too seriously, I don’t do a hammer throw, or anything. I just thought it was funny.
Your story has a little bit of the Jamaican bobsled team feel – Israel isn’t known for winter sports.
It’s not limited to the Jamaican bobsled team. My story is one of many of an athlete that goes out on a limb and tries desperately to represent their country.
That being said, I actually trained in Jamaica this summer with their bobsled team, working on sprints. So, it is more true to “Cool Runnings.”
But I wouldn’t want to compare my story to a Disney movie or to any other team’s approach. There’s so much pride in representing Israel as a Jew, it’s hard to describe the feelings.
Any goals for the tournament?
Everyone wants to say that they’re going to medal, but I don’t fight for a placement, I fight to do my absolute best.
Skeleton is a sport where you can’t control your competitors. In basketball, you can block a shot. In football, you can make an interception. In skeleton, it’s you and the ice.
I want to leave a legacy. There are no riches in this sport, you don’t do it to get rich. It’s a game of avoiding bankruptcy. [Editor’s note: Edelman turned to crowdfunding in 2015 to help cover the costs of competing. “Be a part of the Olympic dream” was his pitch.]
What you have in four years or five years, or even the day after the Olympics when the parade leaves town, is your legacy and what you’ve accomplished. My goal is to be the best ambassador of Israel that I can be, and to change the perception of Israelis as athletes.
I want to challenge the perception of what Jews and Israelis can do in sports, and I’m very excited to have the opportunity to do that.
It was a very emotional moment today. It’s an indescribable moment when you hear that you’ve made the Games. I really hope that someone who sees me gets to have that opportunity in the future.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.