A month ago the hopes, dreams, spirit and hard work of an immeasurable number of Jewish athletes, coaches and support personnel from around the world appeared to be going to waste. Due to the unrest in the Middle East, the 16th World Maccabiah Games were in jeopardy.
But as the week of games came to a close, many felt that they had been saved by something unforeseen, something not easily explained. And all were glad to have attended.
"My mom was against me going, but my dad really wanted me to, and they actually had big fights about it. But in the end it was my decision, and I'm glad me and dad won," said Anaheim Hills' Danielle Perkel, 16, a member of the U.S. junior girls soccer team.
Perkel, a center midfielder whose team won a gold medal, said she was moved by the whole experience.
"Once I got there and saw Israel," she said, "it was the most amazing experience I ever had. Just the history, and everything the Jewish people have been through, and now we have our own country -- which will last forever -- is something that will live with me forever. The Maccabiah has truly been a life-altering experience. It has given me a whole new perspective on Jewish people, as well as myself."
Discussing what it means to be in Israel and part of Maccabiah is practically a sport in itself. Having never before been to Israel, Roman Veytsman and Shawn Weinstein, both members of the U.S. junior basketball team, said the games get everyone to realize how alike people are.
"Being here at a time when we're constantly hearing about how badly Israel needs us is indeed very special," said Weinstein, 15, an incoming junior at Peninsula High School in Rancho Palos Verdes who averaged close to 22 points a game during her play for the U.S. squad, which won the gold medal for the first time since 1993.
"Israel is almost indescribable in that it's so beautiful, and every day we saw something more fascinating. From the touring to the trading to the Israeli people, everything and everyone has been tremendous. My parents wanted me to have the experience and encouraged me from the start. I knew things would be fine, and, sure enough, I never once felt unsafe," Weinstein said.
An incoming junior at El Camino High School, Veytsman, 15, said, "I knew it would be special being here, but the feeling I had marching into Teddy Stadium for the opening ceremonies will live with me forever."
The games, which were shortened in length from 10 to seven days, took place from July 16 to 24. In a normal year, the Maccabiah Games are one of the world's five largest international sporting events.
Sixteen years ago, there were 390 athletes from 18 countries. This year's games, despite numerous cancellations, featured more than 3,000 athletes from approximately 35 countries, competing in 38 sports. Israel alone had more than 1,500 participants.
In the athletics, the United States won gold medals in open and junior basketball, junior girls soccer, water polo and beach volleyball. Overall, the United States finished second to Israel in the count, winning 74 medals (21 gold, 23 silver and 30 bronze). Israel won a whopping 244, including 96 gold.
The undisputed star of this year's United States team was West Hollywood swimmer Lenny Krayzelburg, who won three gold medals at last summer's Olympic Games in Australia. Krayzelburg, who passed up going to the world championships in Japan to participate in the Maccabiah, was selected to carry in the flag for the United States at the opening ceremonies.
"It's one thing to represent a team, or your school, but to represent your country and all the Jewish people from the United States is a tremendous honor of a completely different kind," said Krayzelburg, who despite an injured shoulder won gold medals in the two events in which he participated: 100-meter backstroke and the 4 X 100M medley relay.
As the starting point guard on the U.S. men's open basketball team, Tustin's Doug Gottlieb said he came to Israel partly to win the gold medal his team failed to win in 1997. The last open hoops gold medal won by the U.S. team was in 1985, 16 years ago.
"I felt that, from last time, we had some unfinished business (the U.S. team lost in the semi-finals to Great Britain in 1997), and I wanted to experience winning with some of my former teammates and coach Herb Brown," said Gottlieb, who this past year played professionally in Russia. "The gold medal game against Israel was very tight again, and to pull it out was a tremendous feeling."
Gottlieb, who played college ball at Oklahoma State, added that being in Israel is a very special thing indeed.
"You can't judge Israel by what you see on television, because if you do, you would never come here, and would miss one of the greatest countries in the world," said Gottlieb, who was once voted the best quote in college basketball. "I've been here five times, and I've never felt unsafe. What is really special about these games is all the people really chose to come, and there's nothing like being in Israel and competing in the Maccabiah Games to make you really feel what it's like to be Jewish."
At the closing ceremonies, Matan Vilnai, Israeli minister of science, culture and sports, expressed thanks to the athletes who came to Israel.
"You can't imagine how important it is for us that you came to Israel to take part in this Maccabiah," said Vilnai, who was one of the Israeli officials who insisted that the games take place. "Take back to your countries the knowledge of what life is really like here in Israel. We will see you at the next Maccabiah in 2005, or even before, if you choose to move here and make Israel your home."
Final results for the U.S. team can be found on the Internet by going to www.maccabiah.org.