Six athletes from the Valley competed as part of Team USA in the 2015 Pan American Maccabi Games, the quadrennial Jewish regional athletic competition, held at the end of December in Santiago, Chile.
The six were among about 350 athletes from across the United States that competed with about 4,000 athletes from more than 20 countries. Athletes came from across the Americas, as well as from Israel, England, continental Europe and Australia, each representing their home countries in the competition sponsored by the Latin American Maccabi Confederation.
Among the big highlights was that Team USA medaled in soccer for the first time, a coup when facing teams from the beating heart of futbol culture, and did so in two divisions: Men’s Masters 45-plus and Men’s Masters 35-plus.
Team USA was put together by Maccabi USA, and the local athletes ranged from Pan Am veterans such as Daniel Indech, who competed in golf, to Maccabi newcomers such as Tori Williams (“Teen gymnast to compete in Chile,” Jewish News, July 31, 2015) in gymnastics.
Some hope to compete in the Maccabiah, the worldwide competition known as the Jewish Olympics, that will be held in Israel in 2017.
Jewish News caught up with some of them via email and phone since they returned from the Pan Am Games that ran Dec. 26, 2015, to Jan. 5, 2016.
• Talia Bornstein, women 16-17 swimming: Sixteen-year-old Talia Bornstein, who’s been swimming since she was 4, took home 11 medals from the JCC Maccabi Games held in Memphis in 2012, and 2015 proved to be an even better year for her. She earned five medals at the European Maccabi Games in July 2015 in Berlin, including a gold in the 200-meter freestyle competition.
In Chile, she won seven medals in individual competitions, earning a gold in the 400-meter freestyle and another in the 200-meter butterfly, a silver in the 100-meter butterfly, while taking a bronze in each of the 50-, 200-, 800- and 1500-meter freestyle competitions. She also earned two golds as part of the U.S. 400-meter freestyle relay team and the 200-meter medley relay team.
Her favorite moment?
“Walking into the Estadio Nacional de Chile with Team USA was an unforgettable moment,” she answered via email. “Watching all of the Jewish athletes, from all over the world, march in, carrying their country’s flags, is incredible. Once we were all in the Estadio, the first order of business is singing ‘Hatikvah,’ Israel’s national anthem. It was a moment of great pride and happiness for all of us to join together in Chile, and hearing ‘Hatikvah’ was beautiful.
“Knowing that all of us traveled to be there, to meet each other and share this experience is a spectacular feeling. Those nine days in Santiago, swimming as part of Team USA, were remarkable in every way, and I will always cherish the way it felt to connect with Jewish athletes from all over the world.”
• Brett Epstein, Masters men 45+ soccer: Brett Epstein is a first-time Maccabi participant who took home a bronze medal as part of the U.S. Masters men 45 and older soccer team.
To win the bronze, Team USA shook off a tough loss to the eventual tournament winner (gold) Argentina to beat Great Britain on penalty kicks in a tough-fought game and secure third place in the tourney.
“I have been playing soccer all my life,” Epstein wrote in an email. “I currently play in a Sunday men’s league in Scottsdale with FC Pino. It is impossible to compare the experience of my Sunday league to competing in the Pan American Games. The Maccabi experience was amazing. The Chilean organization was incredible hosts. The emotions I felt marching into the stadium with the USA delegation for opening ceremonies gave me chills. It was almost surreal to see and hear thousands of people cheering for us. To be able to compete against some incredible athletes from other countries was unreal. Games were competitive and physical. However, when we shook hands with our opponents after the game, there was that mutual respect, as we are all Jewish athletes representing our nations while having the time of our lives. The camaraderie and brotherhood with my Jewish teammates in Chile has turned into a lifetime bond. We truly didn’t know each other all too well prior to the tournament, but we left with something far more important than a bronze medal. We left with a love and friendship for one another. There isn’t a thing I wouldn’t do for my teammates and I am sure they would say the same.”
Epstein was one of about 100 players across the U.S. who tried out for the team’s 22 positions. In addition to playing at home in a men’s league, he coaches a youth soccer club in the Valley.
• Daniel Indech, Masters men 50+ golf: This was Daniel Indech’s third consecutive Pan Am Maccabi Games, but it was his first as a golfer. He had played on the Masters men’s 45-plus soccer team at the 2007 and 2013 games.
“I changed sports from soccer to golf because I just can’t stay away from the games,” the periodontist from Scottsdale said in a telephone interview. “I’m kind of making that senior transition.”
Actually, Indech had something of a forced retirement from soccer, suffering a knee injury that required surgery in 2014. However, he remained as chairman of the soccer team (“The chairman is like the general manager”) this time around and was gratified by the team receiving its first Pan Am medal.
“It’s pretty huge,” said Indech, who shared in the bronze as the team chairman. “The 45-plus Masters team won a bronze medal in Israel two years ago at the Maccabiah Games, so we carried on that momentum.”
As for golf, the Pan Am games featured two men’s divisions: an Open division and Masters 50-plus division, in which he competed.
He was one of seven men on the U.S. Masters team, which took the gold in team play. He and Terry Cole teamed up to take the silver in the pairs competition. “I came in 12th out of 28 in individual play,” he said, noting that this was his first time playing golf at the Pan Am games.
“The enormity of the whole event just amplifies everything,” he said, adding that it was inspirational. “This time, more than anything, there were two big community outreach projects” in which Maccabi athletes and coaches participated. One was a Chilean-led effort to provide food and household supplies for needy families in Chile. The other was led by one of the soccer coaches, an eye doctor from New Jersey, who brought down eye-examination equipment and glasses. “They went out into the community and screened about 1,000 children and dispensed about 500 pairs of glasses in this underprivileged area called San Bernardino,” Indech said. The latter effort triggered a commitment by the municipality to continue the free examination program, he said. “I think that was a real proud moment for Team USA.”
• Ali Mayer, Open women’s volleyball: Ali Mayer is studying sports management and marketing at Grand Canyon University and is a volleyball coach at Foothills Academy. She plays intramural volleyball at school, as well.
This was her second time at the Pan American Maccabi Games. She had played at the previous Pan Am Games in Brazil and hopes to make it to the Maccabiah in Israel in 2017.
“This experience is like nothing else,” she wrote in an email. “You get to compete with so many talented athletes who are all Jewish. It was so much fun getting to know so many different people from all over the world.”
Like Indech, she was impressed by the eye-exam mitzvah project. “It was such a fun experience to interact and play with the children and see how big of an impact a pair of glasses can make on that child’s life.”
Others from the Valley: Noah Lewkowitz played on the bronze-winning Masters men’s 35-plus soccer team. This was his second time in Santiago, having played at the Pan Am Games in 2004.
Tori Williams, a first-time participant, was part of the Junior girls’ gymnastics team, which earned a gold as a team. She also received two silvers in the all-around competitions and a bronze on the beam.