An Israeli sledder finds his Olympic dream put on ice

Two-time world championship skeleton entrant Bradley Chalupski wants to represent Israel at the 2014 Games. Why is he being frozen out?

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

Chalupski at the 2012 World Championships in Lake Placid (photo credit: courtesy David Greaves)
Chalupski at the 2012 World Championships in Lake Placid (photo credit: courtesy David Greaves)

Bradley Chalupski so badly wants to give Israel its first-ever medal at a Winter Olympics that he pressed pause on a legal career, immigrated to the Holy Land, and has spent the past year living in a cramped studio apartment in Jerusalem in order to compete under the Israeli flag.

The skeleton racer, a New Jersey native, slid for Israel at the FIBT (International Bobsled Federation) Skeleton World Championships in 2011 and 2012, ranking among the world’s top 30 in his sport in 2012. At the America’s Cup Race in December 2011, also sliding for Israel, he placed fifth, earning Israel its first-ever medal in the sport.

But Chalupski has one problem. The Israel Olympic Committee is refusing to let him race at Sochi in 2014.

Chalupski moved here last summer, deciding to gamble on Israeli citizenship and a sled marked with a Star of David after missing out on qualifying for the USA Team Trials by two-tenths of a second.

“It turned out to be the luckiest two-tenths of a second of my life, because otherwise I wouldn’t be here,” says the five-foot-four, muscle-packed Chalupski, a laid-back, smiley guy who has seen his good nature pushed to the brink over the past twelve months by a series of inexplicable setbacks and a maze of red tape. He refuses to criticize the committee and chooses his words carefully, repeating his gratitude for what he has achieved and his newfound love of his Jewish heritage. But underneath his grin, there is noticeable anger and fatigue.

Bradley Chalupski at a restaurant in Lake Placid, New York, the night before the world championships, February 23, 2012. (photo credit: Uriel Heilman)
Bradley Chalupski at a restaurant in Lake Placid, New York, the night before the world championships, February 23, 2012. (photo credit: Uriel Heilman)

Unlike its cousin, bobsled, skeleton is a sport that is performed solo. Individual athletes careen head first down an icy slope, riding a skeleton-like sled that gives the sport its name. Steering is done through tiny movements of the head and shoulders, and while speeds can reach up to 85 miles per hour, there are no brakes.

Israel has never had an athlete compete in skeleton at an Olympic level, and Chalupski wants to change that.

Despite having all the internationally recognized qualifications for admission to the 2014 Olympics Games in Sochi, Chalupski and his supporters have found themselves on a bureaucratic hamster wheel with the Olympic Committee of Israel. They have diligently filed their required paperwork and clamored for clarity, by phone, email and letters, about what’s required of them. Several times, they say, they felt they had ticked all of the necessary boxes and would be granted the right to compete. And each time, they were instead presented with a new hurdle.

By the standards of the International Olympic Committee, Chalupski has attained the elite, vaunted status of an athlete worthy of competing on the world’s greatest athletic stage, and he insists that he wishes to do so for Team Israel.

But the IOC, he says, has yet to grant him a single face-to-face meeting. Over the course of the past year, they have exchanged a series of emails and he has been handed several confusing tasks, including establishing a Bobsled Federation for Israel (despite the fact that he has already done so) and linking up with the Israeli figure-skating team rather than gaining separate certification.

Now, he says, the process has simply been stalled. His dreams, so to speak, have been put on ice.

The IOC did not return a request for comment on Chalupski and the status of Team Israel in the 2014 Sochi Games.

“We have jumped through all the various hoops that we were aware of having to jump through,” says David Greaves, chairman of the Israeli Bobsled and Skeleton Federation, which is internationally recognized and certified. The IBSF is managed from a base in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and receives zero funds from Israel. “We have tried for numerous years [to get Team Israel to the Olympics]. This started 10 years ago when we, as a bobsled team, knew what we needed to do to try and qualify for the 2006 Olympics in Turin.”

Greaves was the brakeman for that Israeli bobsled team, which was cobbled together in 2002 by a handful of Jewish guys, including Chalupski’s current coach Andy Teig, who dreamed of careening down an icy slope with the Star of David on their protective helmets. The team made it through two world championships but fell apart after failing to qualify for the 2006 Games. With Greaves and Teig behind him, Chalupski is now trying to pick up where the previous team left off.

Fluent in French and heading for graduate school at Seton Hall University, Chalupski was all set for a career as a lawyer in 2006 when he got a taste for the speed and rush of skeleton as he watched that year’s Winter Games, and decided to try out the sport himself. He started training at Lake Placid, where he met Teig, and was convinced to take a gamble on sledding for the Jewish State.

Skeleton works by the sliders pushing their sleds up to top speed on a crystal-slick slope of ice, then jumping on at the last minute and hurtling down a 40-story track. It is not a sport for the faint of heart, or the physically weak. At top speed, a skeleton slider can have 5 Gs of force crushing on his body as he whirls downward.

“I’m a little bit crazy. That’s a fair assessment,” says Chalupski. “I like to go fast.”

Athletes who excel at ice-based sports are a rarity in this hot, dry country, a factor which may explain the IOC’s reluctance to certify Chalupski and his team. But such an excuse, Chalupski says, is nonsense, considering the success of teams from countries like Great Britain, Australia, even Jamaica.

According to Greaves, in their last communication with the Olympic Committee, the IBSF was told it could not be sanctioned by Israel if only one athlete – Chalupski – was on the team. Come back with four or five sliders, they were told, and the matter could be reconsidered.

Such a stipulation, however, has led to a catch-22.

“There are other athletes who have wanted to come on board but haven’t come on board because they can’t get the support they need,” Greaves says.

One of those athletes is Meredith Zaslow Martin, an American who was, like Chalupski, recruited by Teig at Lake Placid to tap into her Jewish identity and join the Israeli team. Newly married and nearly 29, however, she found it impossible to hang in there and bet on her place in the team while the IOC kept the team on hold.

“Every day I went to slide, I had to consider the possibilities,” she said in a letter. “I know there are athletes and families who sacrifice everything for their dream, and I was absolutely crazy to let this slip through my fingers. But with no guarantee by the Israeli Federation for a Sochi 2014 bid, I could not, in good conscience, put my family through it.”

Chalupski, who is engaged, has for the past year has been supporting himself and his training through sponsors and freelance French translation jobs. His fiancé, a fellow law school graduate, makes NIS 25 (about $7) an hour working in a call center. He says there is a still a tiny window for him to qualify for the Sochi Games, but it is closing fast.

“When you talk to people and they tell you we want you to put your entire life on hold, with no guarantees of getting to the pinnacle of the sport even if you’re the best in the world, I’m the only person in the world stupid enough to say yes,” he says.

“There can only be good that comes out of Bradley competing at the Olympics Games. There’s no negative,” says Greaves. “What we don’t understand is how anyone look at this and say, why not? Why not at least give the kid criteria? He may not even qualify, and then it would be a moot point. But why not give the kid a chance to qualify, and support Israel?”

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