Many profiles of prominent athletes feature their “p.r.” That stands for personal record, the competitor’s best-ever performance in his or her sport, not for personal religion. So it’s often difficult to determine the religion of an athlete.
In this issue and next week’s, The Jewish Week highlights some members of the U.S. Summer Olympics squad competing in Athens who are known to be members of the Jewish community.
As usual, in addition to Israel’s Olympic team, a handful of identified Jewish athletes will represent such other countries as Australia and Russia.
On the roster of the 2004 U.S. team are more than a dozen Jewish athletes, a few less than recent Games. Some are high profile, world-class athletes like swimmer Lenny Krayzelburg, an emigre from the former Soviet Union whose gold medals and story of determination made him a star at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney.
Most of the Jewish Olympians, in less glamorous sports, train and compete in virtual anonymity.
We focus this week on fencers Daniel Kellner, and fencing sisters Sada and Emily Jacobson.
On the U.S. roster this year are some old faces like swimmers Jason Lezak and Scott Goldblatt, runner Deena Drossin Kastor, kayaker Joe Jacobi and equestrian rider Margie Engel.
New Jewish Olympians are fencer Jon Tiomkin and pole vaulter Jillian Schwartz.
Sada and Emily Jacobson
Sister Saber Act
It’s normal for sisters a few years apart to be competitive with one another. But for Sada and Emily Jacobson of Atlanta, sibling rivalry is actually a sport.
Both will compete in Athens in the ultimate sport for dueling: women’s saber, which Sada calls “aggressive and fast-paced.”
Graduates of the Greenfield Hebrew Academy in Atlanta, the girls started fencing as adolescents under the tutelage of Arkady Burdan, a Soviet Jewish emigre. Now they are at the top of their sport. Sada, 21, is the top-ranked female saber fencer in the world; Emily, 18, is ranked 10th.
Their father, David, a member of the 1974 U.S. men’s Olympic saber team, practices with his daughters, including Jackie, 15, who also fences competitively. Their mother, Tina, focuses on more domestic concerns.
“Someone’s got to pick up all the wet gym clothes and make sure they get washed,” she says.
Sada took off the last year and a half from Yale University to prepare for the Games. In the mornings she works out with a personal trainer, developing “agility, balance, footwork, explosiveness.” In the afternoons she practices for three or four hours.
Emily’s schedule is similar — and she has homework to do, since “you can’t take off from high school.” She will attend Columbia University this fall and join its fencing team.
The sisters already have made a name for themselves in the Jewish world. They were honored two years ago by the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame at the Suffolk Y in Commack, L.I.
“It was probably more meaningful for me than for my kids,” Tina says. “My father played baseball in college … and in the Army, in a place where there were not a lot of Jewish athletes.”
At the Hall of Fame, she saw pictures of “all the athletes my dad talked about, all the icons. That was very exciting.”
Like the Williams sisters of tennis, Sada and Emily’s paths — and sabers — often cross in competition.
“There’s nothing we can do about it, so we put our masks on and it’s really no different than fencing anybody else,” Emily says.
Sada admits she “would mind” if her little sister beat her in competition.
“We’re always trying to win,” Sada wins, “but she’s a strong fencer. It doesn’t change our relationship.”
En Garde Again
Daniel Kellner’s introduction to the Summer Games was a computer game of that name bought by his parents when he was 13. The interactive game featured several of the sports of the Summer Olympics.
Kellner, then in seventh grade, enjoyed fencing.
“The cerebral aspect really drew me to it,” he says.
Kellner approached the fencing coach at his private school in New Jersey, specialized in foil and made the high school team as a freshman. Helped by private lessons in Manhattan with a coach who had trained Soviet Olympians, he did well in state and national tournaments, made All-American at Columbia University, won a national title and gold medals in the Pan-American Games. Kellner has fenced five times in the World Championships.
In Athens Kellner, the top-ranked male foil fencer in the United States, will compete in the individual and team foil events.
The 28-year-old freelance graphic designer, who lives on the Upper East Side, hopes to be back at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. He plans to enter the Maccabiah Games in Israel next year.
All this after he dropped the sport four years ago. Kellner stopped fencing after the U.S. men’s foil team failed to qualify for the 2000 Games.
“I decided I had had enough,” he says. “I thought my career was a failure for not making the Olympic team.”
Kellner stopped working out, gained 20 pounds and didn’t pick up a foil for a year. Then he visited his parents in Warren, N.J., where his mother had displayed his trophies in his room. His interest was rekindled.
“Maybe I can still do this,” he thought.
Kellner started training again, lost the weight, won some tournaments and regained his high national ranking.
While training full time for two years, Kellner founded Athlete Initiative Inc. (www.athleteinitiative.org), a nonprofit organization that raises money for athletes in unglamorous sports — only fencing so far — to do Olympic training. Other countries subsidize their elite athletes, he says. “I’m trying to even the playing field.”
Kellner, whose graphics have earned two nominations for Emmy Awards, still plays some sports on computer games. His favorite is baseball.
“Once I started actually fencing,” he says, “I dropped the video game.”
Next week: Israeli team members Rami Zur, a kayaker, and cyclist Nicole Freedman.