Maccabiah 2013: Clearing hurdles

A horse of a blue-and-white color

Thanks to American-born show jumper Danielle Goldstein, there may just be an equestrian Team Israel at the 2016 Olympics

Debra writes for the JTA, and is a former features writer for The Times of Israel.

Danielle Goldstein in competition for Israel (photo credit: Courtesy Danielle Goldstein)
Danielle Goldstein in competition for Israel (photo credit: Courtesy Danielle Goldstein)

Here’s some information straight from the horse’s mouth: If Florida resident Danielle Goldstein has her way, Israel will, for the first time ever, have an equestrian team in competition at the 2016 Summer Olympics.

That’s because Goldstein — who is serving as team captain, or chef d’équipe, of Team Israel for the equestrian squad at this year’s Maccabiah Games — is no ordinary American show jumper. The 28-year-old New York City native made aliyah in 2010 expressly to ride for Israel, and in the three years since, she has been on a quest to cultivate the best Jewish talent from around the world in order to cobble together a team good enough to compete on the world’s largest athletic stage.

Some of that talent will be on display next week at the team events for show jumping and dressage, as well as the individual horse-riding competition, in which Goldstein will also compete. But a lot more of the action is happening behind the scenes and out of the stable, as far away as Wellington, Florida, where Goldstein runs Starwyn Farms, a massive complex of stables, stalls and riding paths. Here, everything is festooned in blue-and-white — even the horses’ bonnets and the employees’ uniforms are embellished with a proud Israeli flag — because, despite the fact that she has never spent more than an extended visit in Israel, Goldstein feels Israeli all the way down to her bones.

“Even from a very young age Israel felt like home,” says Goldstein, who first visited the country at the age of 12 for her bat mitzvah. “I wanted to support the Jewish people, I wanted to support Israel; and for me, riding has always been something that has opened a lot of doors. [Riding for Israel] felt like it was something that could open those doors for Israel.”

Goldstein arrived for the Games on Thursday morning from Holland, where she has been living for several months as part of her training and competition. Over the next 12 days — when she isn’t competing, coaching, or running clinics for organizations such as the Israel National Therapeutic Riding Association — her focus will be on laying the groundwork for an Israeli Olympic showdown.

Seated in the cavernous, packed dining hall of the Wingate Institute near Netanya — with teams from across the globe shouting in their various languages and shoveling down lunch ahead of the Maccabiah 2013 opening ceremonies — Goldstein explains that what Israel really needs to make its Olympic dreams a reality is to create a cup team.

A nation’s cup team is comprised of four professional equestrian athletes capable of competing at the top level, plus an alternate. It is this team that can ride at all the qualifying games leading up to the Olympics — and finding and securing the talent for it will be crucial should an Israeli equestrian team truly hope to ride into Rio de Janeiro three summers from now.

That team, Goldstein continues, will most likely have one Israeli and three Jews from outside the country — herself included — who have agreed to accept Israeli citizenship and ride on behalf of Israel.

Goldstein is a world-class professional show jumper, with multiple awards and top finishes in some of the world’s most prestigious matchups. Her prestige, as well as her connection to resources in the US and her familiarity with fundraising through her family’s own personal foundation, gives her an advantage when it comes to inserting money, talent and crucially needed support into Israel’s fledgling equestrian industry.

“The infrastructure is still getting built,” she says. “It’s here, but it could be so much more. So that was also part of why I wanted to ride for Israel; I felt there is so much potential here. There is a big interest in horses, but the infrastructure isn’t really solid enough to support the top level. By being able to get some exposure through riding for Israel, I can really help the culture here.”

At this year’s Maccabiah Games, which will feature a show jumping competition for the first time, Goldstein says she believes Team Israel can take gold. The reason is as much based on talent as it is on home field advantage.

“The Israelis are riding horses they know, while the international riders are on horses they don’t know,” she explains. “They know the area, they know the facility, and I think they’re really prepared and really highly motivated. This is a big thing for them … for all of us.”

Goldstein was last in Israel in May, when she met with the Israeli Olympic Committee and earned their blessing to cobble together a team. The upcoming week, with Israeli athletes in the saddle and showing their stuff on the world stage, will be pivotal. Goldstein is working to establish Team Israel as a nonprofit organization: Funding, from both corporate sponsors and donors, will make or break the athletes and help them acquire the critical yet costly equipment and horsepower needed to gain a competitive edge.

“The sole purpose of Team Israel is to bring pride and positive attention to the state of Israel,” she says. “There have been people, even current members of the team, who have had the same goal and have been trying [to make it to the Olympics] for the past 10, 20 years. But for me, I made this push to come to Israel to ride for the team, and it’s such a huge goal. I am putting my entire life behind it.”

At recent competitions in Holland, Goldstein admits, she has found her mind going elsewhere — to the paperwork required to get her team off the ground, and to the athletes in Israel whom she hopes can train at the required level. It has occasionally upset her focus and hurt her competitive edge, but she says she doesn’t mind.

“All I can think about is this team,” she says. “It’s a labor of love. No one is forcing me to do this other than myself. I just love it and it’s what I want.”

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