Meet Bradley Chalupski, Israel’s best hope for a medal on the bobsled track at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, in 2014.
Chalupski is an unlikely Israeli athlete.
For one thing he competes in skeleton, a sport that’s virtually unknown in Israel—not to mention the rest of the world. For another, technically he’s not Israeli.
His only visit to Israel came last year on a Birthright trip.
But come summer, the law school graduate from Marlboro, N.J., with a Catholic father is planning on making the move with his girlfriend, Chana Anolick, whose parents already live in Kochav Yaakov, a settlement in the West Bank. And Chalupski, 25, is hoping that he can improve his racing times to qualify for the 2014 Winter Games.
“Israel is allowing us in good faith to represent the good name of Israel to the world,” Chalupski told JTA. “We’re thankful that they’re letting us be out here.”
In skeleton, racers slide headfirst down icy bobsled tracks on steel-and-plastic sleds weighing 70 pounds without steering or breaking mechanisms at speeds reaching up to 80 mph. A single run takes about a minute, and races typically are won by several hundredths of a second. Aside from slight shifts in weight to help steer, the key factor in the race is the quality of one’s running start. Chalupski describes it as like riding a “flying cookie sheet.”
Last weekend, Chalupski finished 29th among the 31 racers in the skeleton world championships at Lake Placid, N.Y., the site of one of just two bobsled tracks in the United States (the other is in Park City, Utah). The fact that an athlete representing Israel had qualified at all had organizers scrambling before the competition to find an Israeli flag to post at the track. They eventually borrowed one from a nearby church when the flag they had ordered from a company in Arizona was late in coming.
“We’re legitimately competing; we’re not just showing up,” Chalupski said in an interview the night before the race.
Last year he also qualified for the world championships, which were held near Berchtesgaden, Germany, the site of Hitler’s alpine retreat, Eagle’s Nest. The symbolism of competing in the shadow of Hitler’s mountain estate wasn’t lost on Chalupski’s team.
“That’s when I realized that what we’re doing here is much more than just sliding on a track,” said David Greaves, chief fundraiser for the Israeli Bobsled and Skeleton Federation, which is run out of North America and receives no funding from the Israeli government or Olympic Committee. “The Israeli flag was flying on the track with all the other nations’ flags, and seeing Eagle’s Nest looking down on the track was emotional for all of us.”
Greaves, a Canadian whose day job is as director of development and marketing at the Jewish Foundation of Manitoba, was a brakeman on an Israeli bobsled team that came together in late 2002, competed in two world championships and disbanded after failing to qualify for the Torino Olympics in 2006. Another member of that team, Andy Teig, a paramedic who lives in Lake Placid, is Chalupski’s coach.
Chalupski didn’t start out racing for Israel. He began in the U.S. program, cutting classes during law school at Seton Hall University to train at Lake Placid, the site of the 1932 and 1980 Winter Olympics. But after falling just short of making the U.S. national team trials in 2010, Chalupski was set to quit riding skeleton and go work for a law firm in France.
Then he got call from Teig, who had one question: Was Chalupski interested in racing for Israel?
The thought had never occurred to Chalupski, who was raised in a thoroughly secular home, didn’t have a bar mitzvah and had never given Israel—or his Jewish identity—much thought. He knew one thing: He didn’t want to switch flags simply to qualify more easily for races, he said.
As Chalupski began talking over the decision with family and friends, a journey of Jewish exploration began. “Responses ranged from people who said, ‘Why haven’t you said yes already?’ to people who said, ‘You’re not Israeli, you’ve never been there, you don’t speak Hebrew, why would you do that?’ ” Chalupski recalled.
But the responses of his Jewish friends stood out. “They all said, ‘You’re Jewish. Of course you can represent Israel.’ I honestly had never thought about it that way. And I began to start to ask myself what it means to be Jewish.”
The clincher came from his girlfriend, whose father is an Orthodox rabbi. “She expressed the sentiment that I had an obligation to do it because as a Jewish man, somebody was asking me to represent Israel to the world in a way only I currently am capable of doing,” he said.
After 10 weeks mulling over the decision, Chalupski put his law career on hold—much to his mother’s chagrin—and moved north to Lake Placid to begin training full-time. In the two years since he has enjoyed some triumphs—Chalupski won a medal in a lower-circuit race—and faced a host of challenges, from getting enough practice time to scraping together the money required to compete around the world.
For help, Chalupski and his support team have been relying on the goodwill of Jewish communities around the world. When Chalupski goes to competitions, he often flies on donated frequent flyer miles and stays at the homes of local Jews. He has received support through a Facebook page and Web site. His support team—coach from Lake Placid, fundraiser from Manitoba, marketing director from Manhattan and accountant from Washington—is made up of volunteers who had never met in person until last weekend’s world championships.
“No matter what country you’re from, when you see that Israeli guy at the start line, you’re cheering for him,” Greaves said. “He’s sliding for a nation of people all over the world: Am Yisrael.”
The team also has gotten help from the International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation, known as the FIBT; practice time courtesy of the New York State Olympic Regional Development Authority, which manages Lake Placid’s facilities; and sponsorship from a Canadian clothing company, Mondetta.
From Israel, the team says it is thankful just for recognition: Several years ago, Greaves said, Israel formally affirmed to the FIBT that the team behind Chalupski represents the Jewish state. Greaves is listed as the contact for the Israeli team on the website of the FIBT. However, when contacted by JTA, Israeli Olympic Committee officials said they knew nothing about Chalupski or the Israeli bobsled team.
“We have no connection; if they represent Israel or not I have no idea,” Efraim Zinger, secretary general of the Israeli Olympic Committee, told JTA.
But Zinger said the Israeli Olympic Committee does not oversee all athletes who represent Israel, just those in Olympic competition. To represent Israel at the Olympics, athletes must meet several criteria, including competing in a sport that exists in Israel. That would seem to preclude Chalupski—or any sport involving a bobsled track.
Indeed, one of Chalupski’s support team’s biggest concerns is that he will qualify for the Olympics but Israel will not give him the green light to go. “We’re trying to build the best possible case for the Israeli Olympic Committee to want to send us,” Greaves said.
At the end of last season, Chalupski ranked 68th in the world in men’s skeleton. This year he expects to advance to somewhere around 50th. Though he’s still far from Olympic medal contention, Chalupski is edging closer to the point where he could qualify under a quota for warm-weather countries like Israel. Olympic qualifying competition begins in 2013.
During the competition at Lake Placid, Chalupski wore a new helmet emblazoned with the Israeli flag. Under it he wore his secret weapon: a kipah with the logo of the University of Maryland, his alma mater, which he got on his Birthright trip.
Ultimately, however, Chalupski will need more than symbols to improve his racing times. His backers’ hope is that they can raise enough money in the offseason to buy Chalupski a new sled, which can cost up to $10,000 but which could make the difference in races measured in split seconds. Once Chalupski moves to Israel—he’s already done the aliyah paperwork—he plans to spend winters training in Europe, which has several bobsled tracks.
Teig says he hopes Chapulski won’t be the only Israeli competitor on the track come 2014.
“We are recruiting for bobsled and skeleton athletes,” Teig said. “Give me a call. We’ll run you through the combine.”