By Jessica Hanewinckel
The month of July will bring the heat to Israel, but so will the more than 10,000 athletes descending on the country for the competition of their lives. This month, July 18-30, Israel will hold the 19th Maccabiah Games at sites throughout the country. The world’s largest Jewish athletic competition and the third largest of all athletic competitions worldwide, which greatly resembles the Olympics in pomp and circumstance and in format, is open to Jews worldwide and to all Israelis. It has taken place every four years since 1957 (it was held four times prior to 1957, beginning in 1932, but the Holocaust and World War II interrupted the regularity) and has grown each time in number of competitors and number of country delegations participating.
This year, San Diego will be represented, perhaps most prominently, in that most quintessential of California competitive sports: water polo. Doug Peabody, president of the San Diego Shores Water Polo Club, a nonprofit youth sports group based out of La Jolla, and a former Maccabiah water polo athlete himself (in the 1989 Games) will coach both the men’s and women’s teams. (This year will mark the first time water polo competition is open to women in the Games, but as of press time, only three delegations had registered to bring a women’s team: the U.S., Israel and Hungary, whose national sport is water polo.) Peabody, who is himself Jewish and who has coached water polo and swimming for 16 years at the Bishop’s School and been with the San Diego Shores for 22, has played the sport and coached both water polo and swimming in various capacities, from local kids and teens to adults at the national and international levels.
“It’s incredible,” says Peabody of participating in the Games. “It’s amazing how many people you meet … who have some of the same beliefs as you do as far as athletics and life go, and then the opportunity to actually go with them to Israel. It was incredible [competing at age 25] to walk into the Opening Ceremonies with 50,000 screaming people. It’s one of the fondest memories of my life, and I’m excited after 25 years to get to go back and have the same experience.”
Joining Peabody are four San Diego athletes: Drew Hoffenberg, an alumnus of the Bishop’s School and a native of Rancho Santa Fe who is currently entering his junior year at Princeton University, for the men’s team; and Lauren Presant (2010 alumna of Brown University and a graduate of Poway High School), Sierra Stillwater (a recent graduate of Patrick Henry High School) and Emma Sasson (an upcoming sophomore at UCSD and an alumna of Rancho Bernardo High School), for the women’s team.
Of the 26 athletes on the two teams (13 each), Peabody has coached Presant, Stillwater and Sasson at the club level and says he’s optimistic about their anticipated performance, despite the fact that the teams are comprised of athletes from around the country who don’t really know one another. He also dismisses the fact that they’ll have just two days to train as a team prior to departure for Israel and between two and three hours a day once in Israel for the few weeks leading up to their competition, which is in the final week of the Games.
“I think it’s going to be a great group of girls,” says the seasoned coach who’s used to fostering a team atmosphere and figuring out each player’s role in a group of athletes who’ve hardly just met. “They’re going to really have to listen and pay attention and decide really early on that they want to be a cohesive unit, and that’s going to have to be a really fast initial buy-in.
“I went to the [FINA Men’s Junior Water Polo] World Championships in Argentina in 2005, and I met one of our players at the airport and had to incorporate him into the team literally on the airplane ride there and literally in our first meeting and practice before we started competing.”
Sasson, who joined a swim team at age 7 and has played competitive water polo since age 11, has gone to the Junior Olympics in her high school years and at age 16 won silver with her team. She played as part of a club team called Pacific Polo throughout middle school and on the San Diego Shores throughout high school. Now she plays for UCSD’s Division I women’s water polo team. Despite her wealth of competitive experience, she’s especially excited for this opportunity to play the sport with which she calls herself obsessed in a country she’s long overdue to visit.
“It feels a lot better to be going back rather than staying here and seeing it from far away,” says Sasson, whose father is Israeli, though she’s only been to Israel twice, the most recent time when she was 3. “All my family on my dad’s side is there, so I definitely feel part of it. I’ve never felt like it’s a place I don’t really belong.”
Over the years, says the Congregation Beth El member (who grew up attending Ner Tamid Synagogue and who tries to partake in Hillel events as much as possible), water polo has been an activity she’s mostly participated in alongside her mom. Competing in Israel, she says, offers her a way to connect with her dad through the sport she loves in a country he calls home.
“My dad gets water polo, I guess, but I think this is kind of my chance to show him how cool it actually is,” says Sasson, who is working to meet her fundraising goal of $5,000 to fund her travel, accommodation and competition expenses. “It’s nice to bring my dad along.”
While in Israel, Sasson says, she’ll be able to visit family she hasn’t seen since she was a small child as well as tour famous sites in the country with her team (an added perk of being an athlete: they all spend days sightseeing with their teams, sort of like a Birthright trip, Sasson explains).
She’s also looking forward to competing on the biggest stage on which she’s ever played, and probably will ever play.
“It’s as close to the Olympics as I think I’ll ever get,” says the psychology major who wants to become a physician’s assistant or attend medical school. “I mean, I’m not looking to be an Olympian. I used to when I was, like, 10. I think [the Maccabiah Games] will definitely be fun. I’m really excited.”