Dr. Jane Katz may have just competed in her fifteenth Maccabiah Games, but the swimmer still gets nervous before each race.
“I’m running to the bathroom with everyone else. I do better when I’m nervous and the adrenaline is pumping,” said Katz, who represented the United States in synchronized swimming at the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games.
Last week, Katz, 74, celebrated 60 years since her first Maccabiah Games. She marked the occasion by competing and medaling in eight Masters individual and relay team swimming events in which she won four gold medals, two silvers and two bronze. It was nearly as impressive a haul as four summers ago at the 19th Maccabiah Games, when she took home 12 golds and one silver.
Katz could not have imagined back in 1957 upon arriving in Israel as a 14-year-old from New York’s Lower East Side to compete in the 5th Maccabiah Games that she would continue to return every four years for the next six decades as a member of the US team. She is relatively certain that she holds the record for participation in the most Maccabiah Games.
“I am sure that if I don’t hold the record, then someone is taking some really good pills and I want some of them,” she quipped.
During these 60 years, Katz has witnessed the astounding growth of the worldwide Maccabi movement. Twenty countries sent 980 athletes to the 1957 games. This year, Maccabi USA brought more than 1,100 athletes to be part of 10,000 Jewish athletes from 80 countries participating in 43 different sports. The games’ closing ceremony will take place on July 17 at Latrun.
Speaking with The Times of Israel, Katz said she loves meeting up with old friends every time she comes to Israel to compete.
For Katz, it hasn’t been merely about showing up in the Jewish state every four years to swim her races at the Wingate Institute’s national pool. She’s also been highly active in the Maccabiah movement, especially in helping to establish the Masters swimming program back in the 1980s.
Katz herself is an American and world champion Masters swimmer (for swimmers 35 and older) and synchronized swimmer. The ages of the Masters women this year range from 43 to 75.
“The Masters swimming movement started in the 1970s in the United States and internationally with FINA [Fédération internationale de natation, the international swimming federation recognized by the International Olympic Committee]. We worked to bring it to the Maccabiah movement, which is one of the largest movements in sports after the Olympics and the Pan American Games,” Katz said.
For the septuagenarian Katz, age is obviously just a number. Although she is not quite as active as she once was, she still heads to the pool each day to swim at least a mile.
“It keeps me off the streets and out of trouble,” she joked.
Katz has taught aquatic fitness and safety at the City University of New York since 1964 and at John Jay College since 1989. She’s authored 14 books on swimming, fitness and water exercise and produced instructional videos, including her latest, “W.E.T.s 4 VETS®” (Water Exercise Techniques for Veterans), a holistic program for veterans to return to mainstream civilian life through water exercise techniques.
In Jewish circles, Katz is known best for her Maccabiah fame and induction to the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 2011. However, in addition to her participation in the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games, she has received many awards and recognitions beyond the Jewish sporting world.
In 2014, Katz received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the US President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition, and was inducted to he International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame. In 2013, she was recognized by Aquatics International as one of the 25 most influential people in aquatics over the previous 25 years (a list that included Michael Phelps and Greg Louganis, among others).
As Katz savors this 60th anniversary of her first Maccabiah Games, she looks back at how far she has come in her athletic career. She credits much of her passion for swimming to her father, the late Leon Katz. Katz wrote in a Times of Israel blog post about how he inspired her and countless other New York City children to enter the pool.
“A large part of my childhood was spent going to swim meets with the family. My mother, Dorothea, had no choice. I always wanted to do my best and please my parents, especially my dad,” she wrote.
“My dad, Coach Leon Katz, taught everybody to swim. He passed his love for swimming on to all of us, particular me.”
Katz is proud that she persisted in her love of swimming long before most of society society considered sports an acceptable pursuit for girls and young women. Title IX, the law passed in 1972 that requires gender equality in every educational program that receives federal funding, including sports programs, came too late for her.
“I was in my thirties when that came into effect. I was way gone by that time,” said Katz, who by the 1970s was well past her student years.
While Katz may not have been able to to personally benefit from Title IX, she is gratified to live in an era in which women can follow their athletic dreams. She especially enjoys teaching physical education and swimming to immigrant women who come from countries and cultures where they were not allowed to do sports.
“It’s very new and exciting for them,” Katz said.
Katz hopes “God willing” to be back in Israel in summer 2021 for her sixteenth Maccabiah Games. When it comes to swimming, she believes it’s never too late, and you can never be too old.
“I love the exercise and the camaraderie. Swimming keeps me going,” she said.