Team Philadelphia Racks Up Many Medals in Two Locations at 2016 Maccabi Games

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Michael Phelps, Simone Biles and Usain Bolt may have been among this year’s most noteworthy Olympians, but the teens representing Team Philadelphia at the 2016 Maccabi Games were no slouches either.

Watch out, Michael Phelps. Step aside, Simone Biles. Look behind you, Usain Bolt.
Phelps, Biles and Bolt may have been among this year’s most noteworthy Olympians, but the teens representing Team Philadelphia at the 2016 Maccabi Games were no slouches either.
Consider the group of seven swimmers, who brought home 12 gold, 13 silver and eight bronze medals, according to Marti Berk, who headed the Philadelphia delegation.
Or how about a three-person track team that won three golds, seven silvers and a bronze?
And in the team events, the 16-and-under boys basketball, 16-and-under girls basketball, 16-and-under girls soccer and 14-and-under boys soccer teams all won golds, while the 14-and- under baseball team won a silver medal.
Throw in seven golds, two silvers and two bronzes in dance  and two bronzes and a gold in tennis, and that’s quite a haul.
Berk said Team Philadelphia members participated in both the St. Louis and Stamford, Conn., versions of the game. That included 31 participants in St. Louis from July 31 through Aug. 5, and 90 in Stamford from Aug. 7 to 12, Berk said.
But the Maccabi Games aren’t limited to athletics.
For example, the Stamford competition includes an Arts Fest. Berk said Philadelphia was represented by a vocal musician and a visual artist.
And the games aren’t all about competition.
“One of the things that makes Maccabi different is they do a community service project,” Berk said.
Despite the competition, Berk saw plenty of athletes bonding with their competition, especially after the games were over each day.
A Polish delegation received a standing ovation from the other teams, Berk said.
There was time for fun, too.
“Every night it turned into a teen dance party,” she said.
Zara Liss, 14, who won gold and bronze medals in swimming relay events, said she made friends from Venezuela, California and Brooklyn.
“It was something you can’t get at home. It was fun meeting new kids,” said Liss, who attends Lower Merion High School. “The highlight of the trip was the closing party.”
New to the games this year was ice hockey, which replaced inline hockey.
Craig Siegel, who was named the head coach on Dec. 30, 2015, had a difficult time building a team, given the general dearth of Jewish hockey players.
“On any given hockey team, there are usually zero or maybe one Jewish player,” said Siegel, who noted that while it sounds crass, he recruited players by checking area rosters in search of “Jewish-sounding names.”
That generated a list of about 75 possibilities, of which Siegel was able to contact about 50. Between two tryouts and from personally having seen a couple others play, 12 players and two goalies were selected to represent Philadelphia. Those players — ages 13 to 16 — came from the Main Line, Bucks County, Philadelphia, South and Central Jersey, and even Staten Island, N.Y.
Even with a team in place, Siegel said the Maccabi-standard seven practices before the games in Stamford didn’t offer much time.
“That was challenging also because I had to wait until the season ended,” he said.
Despite the obstacles, the team did well in round robin play, splitting two games on Aug. 7 and two more on Aug. 8, including a 10-1 thrashing of the East Bay, Calif., team.
The Philadelphia team ended up with the sixth seed out of 12, which led to a first-round playoff game against East Bay; this time, Philly won 6-0.
That set up a quarterfinals matchup with the third-ranked Toronto team.
Although the local players trailed only 3-2 well into the third period, fatigue set in and a couple of late goals led to a 5-2 loss.
All in all, however, Siegel said the experience was worthwhile for himself and the players, many of whom identify as Jewish, but aren’t particularly observant.
“Having 1,500 Jewish kids in that environment was an eye-opening experience,” said Siegel, a 45-year-old Richboro resident who is as a management consultant for the insurance and pharmaceutical industries.
In addition, the players bonded and want to stay together as a tournament team, although that’s probably unlikely considering the logistics.
And despite the hockey team falling short, Siegel’s family did get to experience the joy of success, as his 14-year-old son, Jeremy, was part of the 14- and-under baseball team that won a silver medal.
Although the 2016 games are in the books, the process of preparing for the 2017 games has already begun, Berk said.
That includes deciding where the local delegation will compete.
“There’s a lot puzzle pieces that need to fit to make it all happen,” Berk said.
Contact: [email protected]; 215-832-0797
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Andy Gotlieb is the managing editor of the Jewish Exponent. He holds 31 years of experience in communications, mostly in journalism, with a decade in public relations, too. Prior newspaper stops include the St. Joseph (Mo.) News-Press, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the Tampa Tribune and the Philadelphia Business Journal. The first 17 years were spent in print journalism, where I covered, at various times, business, politics, crime and government, among other beats. The final 2.5 years in that stretch was an editor at the Philadelphia Business Journal, where my responsibilities included complete control over a weekly section and working with both staff writers and freelancers. In late 2005, I switched gears and began working in public relations for the next decade. I learned the ins and outs of public relations -- including being on the other side of the media-PR equation -- and made numerous contacts. I rejoined the ranks of journalism in March 2016, starting as the managing editor of the Jewish Exponent.

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