“There’s a special connection,” Jillian Schwartz said as she explained her decision to stop competing for team USA and switch to team Israel.

On Sunday, Israel’s entire Olympic team gathered for a two-day retreat. At the lunch table, Jillian spoke about her move to Israel, her Jewish childhood and what she expected to achieve at London 2012.

In 2009, Schwartz came to Israel with the rest of the US Maccabiah team. The pole-vaulter, who had been part of the US’s delegation to the 2004 Olympics in Athens, decided to stay and compete for the Jewish state.

“It’s about the connection, the people and the culture,” Schwartz said. “I think being brought up Jewishly had a lot to do with it.” It, of course, is the move, leaving one of the best athletic teams in the world — after being an Olympian with it — and moving to Israel, where athletics aren’t nearly as popular.

Schwartz also said there was a second reason. While she believes she could have made the cut for team USA, she knows that the fact that the Israelis team is less glamorous and prestigious has some benefits for her. “I don’t have to compete quite as often as I did before, which for me — being a little bit older — is definitely a good thing,” said the 32-year-old.

Growing up Jewish, first in Illinois and then in Arkansas, was part of Jillian’s childhood. “For me, growing up Jewish was all about the traditions, and holidays, being with my family and sharing traditions with generations of people,” she said.

Israel was less present in her life, before she made her first visit in 2009 during the Maccabiah games. “Before that I couldn’t come, with all the training,” Jillian explained. “Coming to Israel happened because I was invited to compete,” she told the Times of Israel. The Maccabiah games “made it possible for me to come.”

When in Israel, she was approached and asked if she would compete for Israel, instead of the USA. The two reasons mentioned were enough to make her start a process of gaining Israeli citizenship.

Jillian Schwartz (right) and Donald Sanford (photo credit: Aaron Kalman/Times of Israel)

Jillian Schwartz (right) and Donald Sanford (photo credit: Aaron Kalman/Times of Israel)

In 2010, she started competing as an Israeli national, setting new records in both indoor and outdoor contests. There are fewer competitors in Israel, and as a result the level isn’t as high as other countries, so Jillian (like other athletes) spends much of her time training in Europe. However, she notes that “for the nationals, they always bring in foreign competitors who are at a good level,” raising the bar for Israelis who wish to battle on the international level.

Schwartz placed high expectations on herself for the Olympics. “A finals. That’s what I’m working on, whatever height it might take.” She thinks a mark of 4.55 meters or 4.60 meters will be enough to qualify, and she’s hit that mark before. “But you can never be sure,” she cautions.

Though she said it was an honor to be in the Olympics, when competing for the US or for Israel, Jillian said there were some differences with the Israeli team, due to its size. “I feel like with Israel it’s smaller, so it’s more intimate. People know you more.”

Those feelings cause her to echo the reason for making the move from the Star-Spangled Banner to the Star of David. “There’s more of a connection with the people.”

Last week, Boston-born Jewish gymnast Aly Raisman made the cut for team USA, but Jillian says that a similar switch could be considered in the future. ”It’s very individual. Every person has their own career,” she said with a smile.