NEW YORK — Ice, any kind of ice, sounds pretty refreshing right now in the heat of summer. But what if you had to hurtle face first down a bobsled track at 130 kph (80 mph) and experience up to 5.5 Gs of force to get your frosted fix? For AJ “The Hebrew Hammer” Edelman, who hopes to become Israel’s first Olympic skeleton athlete, that’s just part of the fun.
The 24-year-old product manager for Oracle is originally from Brookline, Massachusetts and grew up as a star hockey player, so Edelman’s no stranger to ice and cold. Now he lives in California, but he dedicates all of his spare time, and plenty of his own resources, to training and competing in the adrenaline-charged sport. This week marks the beginning of his Indiegogo fundraising campaign, a tax-deductible 501c3 nonprofit, for his self-financed Olympic bid.
He has his eyes set on the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in PyeongChang, South Korea. But while he proudly wears a skintight blue-and-white, Magen David-stamped racing suit, there are still a few bumps in the ice.
The Times of Israel caught up with Edelman, who was training in Park City, Utah (home of the 2002 Winter Games, the first with a skeleton competition since 1928), to learn more about the Olympic future of the Hebrew Hammer.
Even in Park City, the summertime temperatures aren’t exactly conducive to ice. What kind of training were you doing today?
At the start of every run we do a 30-50 meter sprint, then jump headfirst onto the sled. In the off-season, that’s pretty much the only thing we can practice. I’m in Utah because Park City is one of two places in North America with an off-season push track. We run and then jump onto a wheeled sled attached to something that looks like railroad tracks.
What inspired you to take up skeleton in the first place?
‘As difficult as it is to tell young Jewish or Israeli kids that they can go far in sports, it’s even harder to tell them they can go far in winter sports’
In middle school, I turned down offers to attend a prep school that would have put me on the track to playing NCAA Division 1 ice hockey [the highest level of collegiate ice hockey] so that I could continue my Jewish education at Maimonides School. I played hockey at MIT, but after college that competitive drive never went away.
First I tried natural bodybuilding and competed for a year, but I felt something lacking. In October 2013, I turned on the TV and saw the US team trials in skeleton and bobsled. At the moment I decided the Olympics would be a magnificent challenge.
And it’s only a bonus that it’s a winter sport – as difficult as it is to tell young Jewish or Israeli kids that they can go far in sports, it’s even harder to tell them they can go far in winter sports.
What did your mother say about that ambition?
She had two heart attacks – that I would never get married and never get a job. She sent me to a training school in Lake Placid, New York [home to the 1932 and 1980 Winter Olympics] hoping that it would knock some sense into me. The first time I went down the track, it was like a drug.
We’re less than three years from the 2018 Winter Olympics. What do you need to accomplish to qualify for PyeongChang?
Everything hinges on 2017-2018 season. Thirty male athletes are chosen from the top 60 in the world ranking. I’m currently ranked 91st in the world. So in the interim I am getting more experience and becoming a better athlete.
Last season I competed in four races on the North American Cup Circuit. This season I will compete in 12 races on the Intercontinental Cup Circuit, which will take me everywhere from Whistler, Canada, home of the 2010 Olympics, to St. Moritz, Switzerland, the birthplace of skeleton.
You already compete under the Israeli banner, but there’s a small hitch: You’re not Israeli. How does that work?
The Olympic Committee of Israel’s rules stipulate that you have to be a citizen or have residency one year before the games. I will begin the process later this year, but I am working out the logistics so that it doesn’t interrupt my training. Hopefully by March, so that I can do my military service after the season.
The Olympics are rife with examples of athletes switching passports so they can secure a spot. Not that anyone has made that allegation of you, but how do you respond to that perception?
‘I walk around with a kippah on my head, I wear the white and blue. I’d only do this if it could be for Israel’
I walk around with a kippah on my head, I wear the white and blue. I’d only do this if it could be for Israel. No question in my mind. I thought about joining the Israeli national ice hockey team – I’m a better hockey player than skeleton athlete – but they won’t make the Olympics for a long time. It’s still special to me when the announcer says, “Track clear for the slider from Israel.”
My personal reason for getting into sport in the first place was to change the perception of Jews in sports and represent my community. I was always the only Jewish hockey player my teammates had ever met. Through achieving sporting excellence I was able to act as an ambassador for my community. A lot more kids from my community now play ice hockey.
I have unique athletic talent and I want to do something positive with it. It’s unfortunate that in Jewish day school life or Modern Orthodox life, Jewish children are not asked much in the way of athletic excellence and not as encouraged as much as it is in other communities.
Where did the nickname “The Hebrew Hammer” come from?
My original moniker was “The Frozen Chosen.” But it was supposed to represent a team, not just myself. I ditched the name because it sounded like I was chosen, but I’m just a normal individual from a normal Jewish family. I’m not a superstar. Some people have seen the movie or see it as a funny play on words.
What have been your biggest challenges as a skeleton athlete?
‘In Calgary, I was so bruised and banged up my hips looked like grapefruits. Like I was playing ping-pong with my body’
In Calgary, I was so bruised and banged up my hips looked like grapefruits. Like I was playing ping-pong with my body. I broke one of my ribs. I could barely walk. I went back to the basement I was staying in, lay on the bed, and didn’t want to get up.
Then I realized, if this is as bad as it’s going to get, it’s not that bad. I’ve taken slapshots to the throat before… for me it’s all just part of the experience. For many people that would shut them down. The only answer is to do better.
There is also the double-edged sword of being in a small nation’s program. I have no resources, help, or coaching, but I don’t have to compete against anyone else in my program, which is a wonderful advantage. I can be friendly with everyone on the circuit. I’d love to have a coach and facilities, but for me it works.
Unfortunately races are usually held on Friday and Saturday. I did make the decision to slide on Shabbos, but I don’t fly or train on Shabbos. Growing up I never played hockey on Shabbos, this was for me a personal choice. But I refrain from all the other melachot [forbidden activities on Shabbat] as best I can.
Kosher is a bigger challenge – going out with your mates is a bit more difficult, but also a wonderful opportunity to educate them. I’m an ambassador for all things Jewish.
Jews aren’t exactly known for flocking to winter sports destinations, but as a lone athlete on the skeleton circuit, how have local Jewish communities received you?
When I first arrived in Park City, I stayed at a Best Western and then realized if my mission is to inspire more Jews to do sport, then I should go out and meet as many Jews as I can. I went to the temple in Park City and said I’d be here for half the season, and immediately the congregation started a rotation for me to stay in people’s houses when I come. I was floored, it was not something I expected.
I spent the second half of the season in Calgary. I messaged the Modern Orthodox shul there and they put me in touch with a family who said you can stay with us whenever you’d like.
I’ve met Jews in places that I never would have imagined. The biggest surprise when meeting Jews is not just the hospitality, it’s that there’s a real camaraderie and makes me so proud to represent Israel and our people. Even for Jews who grew up unreligious, when they come by the sliding park, they see the Star of David on the back of the suit and they ask, “Israel competes in sliding sports?”
It’s kind of like the Jamaican bobsled team – if they had never gone to the Calgary Olympics in 1988, nowadays even Jamaicans wouldn’t believe it. That’s the same perception if you go up to every normal Jewish person. People would have said that’s crazy, you’re from a desert country, that doesn’t work.