Adam Edelman is Israel's first Olympic skeleton athlete. Adam Edelman is Israel's first Olympic skeleton athlete. Adam Edelman is Israel's first Olympic skeleton athlete. (Photo: Courtesy Adam Edelman)

With no coach, this Israeli skeleton athlete learned the sport by watching YouTube videos

Adam "AJ" Edelman is now one of the top 30 racers in the world.

Winter sports overall tend to be more dangerous than summer sports – they take place mostly outside at the mercy of the elements on ice or snow, involve sharp blades and metal edges, incredible speeds, extreme air time and often, bone-shattering crashes and collisions. Skeleton, however, stands apart as one of the most difficult and least accessible (and therefore misunderstood) of all the winter sports. Adam "AJ" Edelman, Israel’s first Olympic skeleton athlete, would like to change that.

PHOTOS: Israel at the Winter Olympics

Edelman was the 10th athlete to be named to the 2018 Israeli Olympic Team with two fifth-place finishes at a North American Cup event in Lake Placid, New York, in mid-January. “That race locked up both the Israeli championship and secured our quota spot for the Olympics. It was a really good race for Israel,” he told From the Grapevine.

Qualifying for the Olympics in any sport is impressive. But it’s infinitely more impressive if you qualify for the Olympics after only four years in the sport – and without a coach.

Edelman was first introduced to skeleton watching the U.S. Olympic trials on television in late 2013. Sports have always been a part of his life. He grew up playing hockey and was a goaltender on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology hockey team. Ready for a new challenge, he set his sights on the Olympics.

“I decided that making the Olympic Games would be a platform from which to start a foundation to [help coach] Israeli kids, especially in winter sports but really in all sports, so that they would know that sports, as a pro athlete or an elite athlete, is a viable choice,” he said.

Edelman joined the sport only four years ago. Edelman joined the sport only four years ago. (Photo: Courtesy Adam Edelman)

Skeleton takes place on the same icy toboggan track as bobsled and luge. Unlike bobsled, skeleton is contested only by single competitors (they’re called sliders) and unlike luge, competitors go headfirst. The forces on the body are the highest in the corners, up to 5G, when you basically can’t see because your helmet is dragging on the ice. Steering is accomplished by subtle movements of the head, shoulders and knees to add minute amounts of pressure to one of the four corners of the steel sled.

Drive well, and you arrive at the finish safely. Drive poorly, and you will likely find yourself going headfirst into an ice wall at 78 mph.

Skeleton sliders drive the sled through subtle movements of the head, shoulders knees and toes. Skeleton sliders drive the sled through subtle movements of the head, shoulders knees and toes. (Photo: Courtesy Adam Edelman)

Without a coach, Edelman learned to drive by watching endless hours of YouTube videos and taking more runs than anybody else on the track. “When everybody else would take three runs per day, I would take six to eight. Skeleton is really hard on the body, really hard on the head. It was incredibly painful for the first two years,” he recalled.

He was hired out of MIT as a project manager for Oracle and moved to California. The first year that he started training for skeleton, he continued to work – but since September 2015, it’s been all skeleton, all the time.

There are 11 active skeleton tracks around the world. Edelman goes from track to track training and racing. “My personal philosophy is that if you’re not training on Christmas, your competition is. I don’t ever go home to see my family during the season,” he said.

In the off-season, he works on his sprinting skills. He spent last summer in Jamaica. The skeleton race starts with a powerful sprint – it’s the only way to get propulsion – and a good sprinting start can be worth half the run.

The sprint start is one of the most important aspects of a skeleton run. The sprint start is one of the most important aspects of a skeleton run. (Photo: Courtesy Adam Edelman)

“When I started the sport, the scouting report Israel received said I would not make a great skeleton athlete. As a goaltender, sprinting was not really my forte. The scouting report said I could never make the Olympic games because I couldn’t sprint properly. So I dedicated every second of every day to prove that wrong,” he said.

Succeeding at skeleton takes an incredible amount of athletic ability and technical skill, but there’s one more element required, one that can’t be taught. “These tracks are built in the middle of nowhere, it’s gray and cold, you haven’t seen your family in seven months and you really just want to give up. To continue, it takes perseverance,” Edelman said.

Skeleton is one of the most difficult sports to qualify for the Olympics because only 30 athletes from 15 countries are allowed to participate, and of those 30, one spot is reserved for an athlete from Africa. There are currently four skeleton athletes from Israel participating on the annual race circuit, which includes the North American and Europa Cup, Intercontinental Cup and World Cup events, as well as the annual World Championships. I think our performance this season has been terrific,” Edelman said.

His greatest success has been simply putting on the uniform. “I think all Israeli athletes are ambassadors of the country, and my biggest role, my proudest accomplishment, has been representing Israel as a country,” Edelman said. Israel will send its largest-ever delegation of athletes to the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang.

“I would love to win a medal, but what’s more important is that somebody takes away an impression that they can accomplish the same thing, and they start their own athletic journey.”

Edelman is already looking beyond Pyeongchang. The 2022 Olympics could be in his future, but whether he continues to compete or not, he vows to stay involved in Israeli sports as long as possible – as a mentor or as a coach.

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