Until four years ago, Adam “A.J.” Edelman had never rode a skeleton in his life. Until two years ago, this Bostonian wasn’t even Israeli. Yet in a trajectory almost as rapid as the slender sled he lies on, in a couple of weeks he will become Israel’s first skeleton sled competitor in the Winter Olympics.
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As he tells Haaretz in his surprisingly good Hebrew (albeit with a marked American accent), it was his love of Israel that made him an athlete in the first place. If you need an indication of how much of a patriot he is today, you just need to visit his Instagram page, which he calls “Israelskeleton.”
“Four years ago, I thought about how I could help Israel in sports,” says Edelman, 27. “My game was hockey, and I wanted to do something really, really big. Sport wasn’t a thing in our community in Boston – we have a lot of doctors and lawyers, but no athletes. I wanted to set up a foundation for athletes to do something for Israel. And then I saw this crazy sport on television with skeleton sleds. I thought that if this is such a crazy sport, Israelis can look at it and think ‘Huh, can we do that too?’”
Edelman has answered his own question. In just a few years, this Jewish guy with the knitted skullcap has taught himself – after many hours spent speeding down ice runs on a sled that is basically a glorified metal tray – to become a pro skeleton athlete.
He takes pride in the fact he will be representing Israel when the Games begin in PyeongChang, South Korea, on February 9, despite having so little funding or his own trainer. “I so love representing us that, every day when other athletes signed up for three runs, I did eight. They did about 50 runs on the course every year and I did 300.”
If you’re wondering how an athlete can develop his technique and improve without his own trainer, well, that’s where the internet comes in. “When I wasn’t out on the course, I watched video clips on YouTube,” he relates. “I wanted to ‘retrace’ the runs in my mind so that when I would actually be on the sledding course, I would know what to do,” he adds.
“The pain during the first two years was so huge – every time you crash into a wall, at 140 kilometers [87 miles] per hour, it hurts a lot. It’s hard to describe, but in the third year and this last year, it was a lot better and I rose in the rankings.”
In order to understand how a Jewish guy from “Beantown” woke up one morning and decided to represent Israel in the Winter Olympics, in a sport he never tried in his life, we must return to Edelman’s own childhood – and this story is set on the ice, too.
“My mother’s a lawyer and my father’s a doctor,” A.J. recounts. “My dad loved sport, and when we were small he said his children had to be physically fit. The first time I played hockey I was 3 years old, and it went on for another 20 years. When I was in eight grade, I had a lot of offers from junior teams for professional leagues. But I thought that Jews don’t do that sort of thing, that they aren’t professional athletes. So I stayed in my yeshiva. I gave up my professional dream. But when I was at university, I had regrets and thought it was a terrible mistake. Jewish people can do anything.”
When he talks about the period when he became an Israeli, he flits back and forth between Hebrew and English. “In 2006, I was here in Israel with a program similar to Birthright. After I arrived, the Second Lebanon War broke out and that changed my life. Before that I wasn’t a good student, I didn’t care about anything. I was only a Zionist because of my family. After the war began, we were in Jerusalem the whole time because we were afraid of the rockets – and that changed everything for me. From that moment on, I knew I wanted to make aliyah,” he says, referring to immigrating to Israel. “After university I did a year at a yeshiva in Beit Shemesh, and after that my Zionism only...” His hands mime the movement of a jet taking off and he adds the appropriate sound effect.
A Jewish mother’s concerns
One day late in 2013, Edelman found out Israel had a skeleton sled team. So this young athlete with a vision showed up at the Israeli Olympic Committee offices in Tel Aviv and presented them with his dream. Edelman says they welcomed him with open arms. “They gave me a lot of help in Israel, and anything I’ve achieved has been possible only because of the Olympic Committee, the Culture and Sports Ministry, and especially Yaniv Ashkenazi,” the head of the Israeli delegation to PyeongChang.
“When I first went to see the Olympic committee, the first person I spoke to was Yaniv,” Edelman says. “Every time I come to Israel, he helps me. And every time I’m on the sled run and have to send an email for my competitions, he’s always thinking and replies immediately and helps me. He’s wonderful.”
Quite understandably, Edelman’s mom had a hard time watching her son crashing repeatedly into ice walls, getting seriously banged up – sometimes dangerously so - a Georgian suffered fatal injuries in a training run in the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. “My mom was so afraid, she couldn’t watch me at all,” he admits.
It’s at this stage of the interview that the eyes of the last athlete to join Israel’s winter delegation fill with tears. When the head of his international federation called to inform him he would be going to Korea, Edelman was with his parents. “I said to him ‘Give me good news,’ and he said ‘You’re going to the Olympics!’ My father gave me a hug and my mother said, ‘So I’m going to Korea with you.’ That was the first time they said they could see me on television,” Edelman recalls, his voice breaking. “My father was right here beside me,” he gestures, “and I think he gave me a hundred kisses.
“I wanted to do something really, really big, so that people could see me,” he continues. “I think the Olympics is the platform – the place where people can see you and know they can do it, too. At first they told the head of my federation, ‘He’s a hockey player who was a goalie; he can’t run so he won’t make it to the Olympics.’ It was awful hearing that. I said I’d prove beyond a doubt that if you have enough love for what you do, you can do it.”
And Edelman really has done it all completely independently. “Alone, without a trainer, without money. I went to competitions without help, paying for everything myself. You’re without your parents for six months, without your family. But every time I saw the Israelis marching in Rio or Vancouver on YouTube [in previous Olympics], I said to myself, ‘I’m going, too!’
“It’s impossible to pursue a sport for four years all by yourself if you don’t love your country to death,” he continues. “Otherwise, you want to quit every day. This is my motivation – to do something for Israel. It’s an amazing thing to tell other athletes in the community that I went to Israel because I love this country. The state is my home,” he says, again shedding a tear.
Even though no winter athlete who competes in an outdoor event can train in a country where there is no snow – and Israel, as everyone knows, is not blessed with much liquid precipitation – Edelman did his physical training between seasons at the Zinman College of Physical Education and Sport Sciences at the Wingate Institute, Netanya.
After PyeongChang, he is planning to set up a foundation that will donate money to children to take part in sports, in order to promote sport in Israel and the Jewish community worldwide. However, before that he wants to put down some roots. “The first thing I want to do after the Olympics is live in Netanya,” he says. “I don’t think I want to stop with the sledding after the Games, because if I’ve come this far without a trainer, in four years time I can be very, very good. It’s hard, but I’m definitely not done with Israeli sport. Israel has given me so much – the time has come for me to give something back, right?”
At the end of the interview, Edelman has a request. “If possible,” he says, “can you write this in a way so that children who read it know they can do it too?”