PYEONGCHANG, South Korea (AP) — When AJ Edelman tells people in Israel what he does for a living, his countrymen always tend to respond by saying the same thing.
That’s “why?” in Hebrew. And it’s a fair question. Until now, Israel hasn’t had one of its own jump onto a sled and throw himself headfirst down an icy mountainside track in pursuit of Olympic success. But that’s the road Edelman took to the Pyeongchang Olympics, where he is one of many athletes who took a rather unusual route to sliding events at these games.
“A lot of chutzpah,” Edelman said. “People told me I couldn’t. I was damn well going to do it.”
There’s a lot of that going around at the Alpensia Sliding Center these days — sliders with stories that are a million miles from typical.
Nigeria has Olympians in women’s bobsledding and women’s skeleton. Ghana is represented in men’s skeleton. Jamaica has its first Olympic women’s bobsled team and men’s skeleton slider. There was a men’s luge racer from Taiwan who trains on wheeled sleds, on roads and even amid traffic. And women’s luger Daria Obratov only got into sliding because eight knee operations ended her handball career.
“It was a really hard journey,” said Obratov, who worked in a law office and got financial help from her parents to make this quest a reality. “I am here without a mechanic and I work on my sled myself.”
They won’t win. They won’t come close.
For some nations, some sliders, that’s failure. For the long shots, that’s so irrelevant.
“Usually I put wheels on my sled and train on a road, because we have no snow and no track,” said Lien Te-An, the luger from Taiwan. “We have to pass the cars.”
There were 40 men in the Olympic luge race. Lien was 38th and thrilled.
“I came here and showed the whole world about our country,” Lien said.
Edelman’s story might actually seem normal when compared to some of those circuitous routes to Pyeongchang. He played club hockey at MIT near Boston, then had what he describes now as an early mid-life crisis. Put simply, when his hockey days were over he wasn’t ready to no longer have some semblance of a sporting life.
“The reason I didn’t pursue hockey or try to go pro was because I thought, ‘Jews just don’t do that,'” Edelman said.
He’s not fast, had no idea what he was doing his first few times on a sled and was told he wouldn’t last two years in the sport. He recalled all that while standing near the Olympic rings this week, reciting a list of some of the injuries he’s dealt with along the way: many broken ribs, some permanent damage to his ankle, a smashed-up nose that he says was “nice and flat” before sliding for a living.
Oh, and let’s not forget the $100,000 or so that he’s spent along the way.
All worth it. Getting here, at any price, is enough for most.
“These are huge steps that I’ve made for myself and my country,” said Simidele Adeagbo, a Nigerian skeleton racer. “The first Nigerian woman, the first African woman, the first black woman to be here competing in skeleton is huge already. And I’m really just grateful for that. But on race day, it’s about competition. Yes, I’m very proud, but I’m here to compete to the best of my ability.”
It sounds like these Olympics will be the end of Edelman’s foray into sliding. He was all-in for the last couple years, now calls Israel home even though he was born in the US, and got to Pyeongchang without even a full-time coach. He’s gotten some help from teams and coaches, but nothing on an everyday basis.
Instead, he’s largely self-taught. Watching skeleton videos for 6-8 hours a day, he said, allowed him “to develop neuropathways in the brain that would kind of coach me.”
He will be among 30 men who will start the Olympic competition on Thursday. After three of the four heats, the field will get pared down to the top 20 for the final run down the track.
Being in that mix won’t be easy, but that’s his goal.
“I want to get a fourth run,” Edelman said. “That’s my gold medal, a fourth run.”