Upstart Israeli bobsled team seeks to accomplish the impossible
A paralyzed driver and rookie brakemen are leading a made-for-the-movies Winter Olympics dream.
The race had all the makings of a Hollywood story: One athlete was in a wheelchair. The other had a day job in construction, and this was his first competition. Indeed, he had only heard about the race a few days prior. Together they made up the improbable two-man bobsled team from a Mediterranean country that only gets snow a couple days a year.
And yet there was the Israeli bobsled crew in Lake Placid, N.Y. – home of the 1980 Winter Olympics – competing this past November. And wouldn't you know, they beat out two other teams.
The race was reminiscent of the real-life story of the 1988 Jamaican bobsled time, later immortalized in the 1993 John Candy comedy "Cool Runnings." And while that team did not officially finish after losing control of the sled and crashing during one of their qualifiers, the Israelis are hoping for a better outcome as they prepare for the long slide to the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.
David Greaves, the president of Bobsleigh Skeleton Israel, credits the Jamaicans for his own team's success. "They came out and did something that no one had ever thought of before," he told From The Grapevine when we reached him by phone. "And they also changed the sport from big guys pushing a sled ... to the idea that if we can get four guys that were world class sprinters and they can push the sled at the start faster than anybody else, and we can get a guy that can drive the sled, then we should win. Because the race is really won at the top of the track. The push is one of the most important parts of the race."
And that push is what allows Israeli team member Dave Nicholls to compete. The Park City, Utah, resident was injured in a skiing accident about 15 years ago and suffered spinal damage. He's paralyzed from the waist down. While having fewer runners pushing the sled at the start can hurt a team, the rules actually allow for the driver to already be in the sled at the start of the race. In November, Nicholls made history as he became one of the first paraplegic to compete in an able-bodied bobsled competition.
"I don't focus on the fact that I'm on wheels and that others are not – in life or even in this competition. Everyone is different." Nicholls told us. "My focus here is on driving well, opening some doors, changing stereotypes and creating equal opportunities for others as a representative and athlete of Israel in our sport."
The Israeli team has been competing in the two-man race this season, which ends in March at the World Championships in Whistler, British Columbia. A brakeman pushes the sled and then jumps in behind Nicholls as they whiz down the track at speeds of about 90 mph. It's not for the faint of heart. Earlier in the season, a young rookie named Eitan Troyanski joined Nicholls in the bobsled for the first time. After a day on the course, he admitted that the experience wasn't for him. "It was a rude awakening, kind of a slap in the face," he said after the nauseating ride down. "I got this feeling of my brain rattling around in my skull." He's since left the team.
Thankfully, there are currently four other brakemen in Israel's rotation – Gidon "Guido" Sapirin, Ilya Malikin, Ariel Lapp and Chaim Raice, the American-Israeli construction worker who competed in Lake Placid.
"Having four guys is a luxury that most programs of our size don't have," Greaves said. "We've never had that many in our system before, so it's pretty exciting." Greaves, who lives in Canada, has been traveling the world recruiting and working with athletes. (Those looking to join the team can send them an email.)
The bobsledding experience is not new for the 51-year-old Greaves, who was on the original Israeli bobsled squad from 2002-2005. His teammates were U.S. Air Force pilot Aaron Zeff and former San Francisco 49ers tight end John Frank, a two-time Super Bowl winner. All of them held dual citizenship with Israel. They were joined by Jerusalem native Moshe Horowitz, a political science major at Columbia University and flag football enthusiast.
When asked what role he played on the team, Greaves was quick to respond. "I was a brakeman. I would never drive that thing. It was scary enough sitting in the back seat. I wouldn't want to see what's happening in the front."
During that three-year journey, they qualified for two World Championships – one in Europe and the other in North America – but did not make it to the 2006 Olympics in Italy. Those founding members helped pave the way for the next generation.
When not working as a fundraising consultant for non-profits, Greaves also oversees Israel's skeleton team. Representing Israel in the sport of skeleton are engineer-turned-slider, Joel Seligstein from Memphis, and Georgina Cohen, Israel's female slider from the UK. Bradley Chalupski from Marlboro, New Jersey, won Israel's first skeleton medal at the America's Cup in 2011.
The team's star athlete at the 2018 Games in South Korea was A.J. Edelman, who was a goaltender on the MIT hockey team before becoming an Olympian. In Pyeongchang, Edelman was one of 10 athletes from Israel, the country's largest-ever delegation to the Winter Olympics.
The 27-year-old is officially retired now, but is helping mentor new athletes joining the Israeli team as part of the organization's development program. And it's not entirely out of the question for Edelman to return to the twisting, icy tracks – either as a member of the skeleton or bobsled crews. "I know he's really itching to be sliding," Greaves told us. "He's in this place now where it's like, 'Holy smokes, I really wish I was on the track.' So I'm not sure how much longer he can fight with himself."
As for now, the team is working on building up their stats leading up to the fall of 2021 when qualifiers for the next Olympics begin. "That's hopefully when you're peaking and everything is firing at the same time," Greaves said.
Until then, Hollywood – and the world – is waiting.
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