Bradley Chalupski, Israel’s best hope for a medal on the bobsled track at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, in 2014, is, technically speaking, not even Israeli.
His only visit to Israel came last year on a Birthright trip, and the Israeli Olympic Committee isn't even aware of his existence. Moreover, Chalupski competes in skeleton, a sport that’s virtually unknown in Israel and the rest of the world.
But Chalupski, a law school graduate from Marlboro, NJ who has a Catholic father, plans on moving to Israel this summer with his girlfriend, Chana Anolick, whose parents already live in a settlement in the West Bank. And Chalupski, 25, is hoping that he can improve his racing times to qualify for the 2014 Winter Games.
“Israel is allowing us in good faith to represent the good name of Israel to the world,” Chalupski, 25, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “We’re thankful that they’re letting us be out here.”
Chalupski recently finished 29th among the 31 racers in the skeleton world championships at Lake Placid, NY. "We’re legitimately competing; we’re not just showing up,” Chalupski said in an interview the night before the race.
The fact that an athlete representing Israel had qualified at all had organizers scrambling before the competition to find an Israeli flag to post at the track. They eventually borrowed one from a nearby church when the flag they had ordered from a company in Arizona was late in coming.
Last year he also qualified for the world championships, which were held near Berchtesgaden, Germany, the site of Hitler’s alpine retreat, Eagle’s Nest. The symbolism of competing in the shadow of Hitler’s mountain estate wasn’t lost on Chalupski’s team.
Secret weapon: Kippah
“That’s when I realized that what we’re doing here is much more than just sliding on a track,” said David Greaves, chairman of the Israeli Bobsled and Skeleton Federation, which is run out of North America and receives no funding from the Israeli government or Olympic Committee. “The Israeli flag was flying on the track with all the other nations’ flags, and seeing Eagle’s Nest looking down on the track was emotional for all of us.”
The thought of racing for Israel had never occurred to Chalupski, who was raised in a thoroughly secular home, didn't have a bar mitzvah and had never given Israel - or his Jewish identity - much thought.
However, after being approached by a member of the Israeli bobsled team that was assembled in 2002, Chalupski began considering the possibility, and a journey of Jewish exploration began. “Responses ranged from people who said, ‘Why haven’t you said yes already?’ to people who said, ‘You’re not Israeli, you’ve never been there, you don’t speak Hebrew, why would you do that?’ ” Chalupski told JTA.
But the responses of his Jewish friends stood out. “They all said, ‘You’re Jewish. Of course you can represent Israel.’ I honestly had never thought about it that way. And I began to start to ask myself what it means to be Jewish.”
The clincher came from his girlfriend, whose father is an Orthodox rabbi. “She expressed the sentiment that I had an obligation to do it because as a Jewish man, somebody was asking me to represent Israel to the world in a way only I currently am capable of doing,” he said.
At the end of last season, Chalupski ranked 68th in the world in men’s skeleton. This year he expects to advance to somewhere around 50th. Though he’s still far from Olympic medal contention, Chalupski is edging closer to the point where he could qualify under a quota for warm-weather countries like Israel. Olympic qualifying competition begins in 2013.
During the competition at Lake Placid, Chalupski wore a new helmet emblazoned with the Israeli flag. Under it he wore his secret weapon: a kippah with the logo of the University of Maryland, his alma mater, which he got on his Birthright trip.
Ultimately, however, Chalupski will need more than symbols to improve his racing times. His backers' hope is that they can raise enough money in the offseason to buy Chalupski a new sled, which can cost up to $10,000 but which could make the difference in races measured in split seconds. Once Chalupski moves to Israel he plans to spend winters training in Europe, which has several bobsled tracks.