Friday, 21 August 2009 00:00
How many people from the United States get the opportunity to travel to Israel with a group of friends and live there for a month? How many athletes have the honor of representing their country in an international competition playing the sport they love as the sole participant from their hometown? And how many teenagers get to do all of these things while celebrating their 16th birthday?
Amanda Epstein, a Jericho High School junior who plays attacking center midfield on the Girls Varsity Soccer team, was one of three New York teenagers who recently returned from a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do all of the above as a member of the United States Junior Girls National Maccabi Soccer Team that competed in the 18th World Maccabiah Games. Also known as the Jewish Olympics, the Maccabiah Games are played once every four years in Israel. The international competition is the third largest sporting event in the world after the Olympic Games and the Pan American Games. Approximately 7,000 adult and teenage athletes from 65 countries participated in this year’s event, which was held from July 12-23.
For Amanda, the Maccabiah Games were the culmination of an experience that began three years ago when she turned 13 and was first eligible to participate in the Maccabi Games, which are held every summer in three different cities in the United States. The Maccabi experience includes an Olympic-style Opening Ceremony, living with a host family for the week-long games, and a day of community service. Amanda was a member of the Sid Jacobson JCC Maccabi Girls Soccer Team that won the gold medal in 2006 in Stamford, Connecticut, the bronze medal in 2007 in Orange County, California, and the gold medal in 2008 in Detroit, Michigan.
The road to Israel and the 2009 Maccabiah Games began back in December of 2008 when Amanda was one of approximately 60 girls between the ages of 14-18 years old who attended a national tryout in Florida. Barry Kaplan, former Women’s Soccer Coach of Georgia Southwestern University, selected nineteen players from different parts of the country for the team he would ultimately coach. The acceptance letter arrived in January and the team was announced in February. In addition to the three from New York, players who made the team hailed from California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, Ohio, Tennessee and Texas. The next few months of preparation included ordering three different uniforms (red, white, and blue), completing paperwork, establishing a Facebook team page, and finalizing arrangements. At the end of June, two weeks before the Games were scheduled to begin, the girls met for the first time as teammates at Newark Airport and flew to Israel to acclimate to the time difference and the hot and humid climate, get to know one another, experience the culture, tour the country, attend practices, participate in a pre-camp, and scrimmage the U.S. Adult National Women’s team to prepare for the competition.
The players roomed with several teammates within an Olympic-style, hotel/kibbutz village that also accommodated American teams playing other sports as well as teams from other countries, building a closeness, camaraderie, and shared experience that would last well beyond the Games. During pre-camp, the team practiced together in the morning when it was already quite hot and explored the country in the afternoon. There were trips to all of the major cities and sites, from the western beaches of Tel Aviv on the Mediterranean Sea, to the tiered city of Haifa in the north, to the sacred Western Wall and the overwhelming Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, to the ethereal Dead Sea and the ruins of the ancient mountaintop Roman city of Masada on the eastern border.
The Opening Ceremonies took place in the 40,000 seat national stadium in Ramat Gan. Hundreds of cyclists pedaled into the stadium to open the Games as the hosts greeted the spectators in four different languages. Each country’s delegation entered the stadium one at a time to rousing cheers from the audience. Dignitaries such as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israeli President Shimon Peres were featured speakers. The entire spectacle, and the Games themselves, were broadcast live around the world on Jewish Life Television (JLTV). The Ceremonies culminated in the lighting of the Olympic flame to start the Games. The honor of lighting the torch was given to Jason Lezak, an American Olympic swimmer and gold medalist in the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing, China, who opted to forgo the World Championships in Rome so that he could compete in the Maccabiah Games.
When it was finally time for the soccer games to begin, the U.S.A. Junior Girls Soccer team was ready. They cruised through their four round robin games, soundly defeating the Israeli team in Game 1 by a score of 4-1. Amanda, playing the striker position as a left forward, scored the first goal for the Americans and two overall in the match. The second game against Great Britain was a blowout, with a final score of 8-1. Amanda did not play because the Canadian coach was scouting the game. Canada was expected to be the chief competition for Team U.S.A. and Coach Kaplan, employing a bit of strategic gamesmanship, did not want all of his starting players to be identified. The third game was another one-sided affair for the U.S. as they defeated Finland by a score of 7-0. Amanda scored two goals in the first 20 minutes of field action and was designated the MVP. The fourth game was played against previously undefeated Canada. Both teams had already secured their place in the finals, so Coach Kaplan again decided to sit a few of his starting players including Amanda hoping that they would be his “secret weapon” in the finals. As it turned out, Amanda went in for a 10-minute shift to start the second half and got the assist on the third goal in a 3-0 shutout victory. All in all, Team USA outscored their opponents by an impressive 22-2 margin in the four games.
The final turned out to be a different and extremely competitive game against a Canadian team that also held out several of their starting players from the earlier match with the U.S. When the game began to decide the gold medal, Amanda rewarded Coach Kaplan’s strategy with an unassisted breakaway goal in the first two minutes of the game to give the U.S. a 1-0 lead. About ten minutes later, Amanda scored what appeared to be the second goal of the game on another breakaway but the assistant referee called a hand ball on the play and the goal was disqualified. That referee call would prove to be decisive as the U.S. was unable to score the rest of the way. Canada managed to tie the game early in the second half on a free kick which knocked off the crossbar and rebounded to a Canadian forward right in front of the goal. The 1-1 tie was followed by two, ten-minute and scoreless overtime periods, leading to a climactic round of Penalty Kicks to decide the winner. Canada went first and scored their PK. Amanda took the first PK for Team U.S.A. and scored to even things up at 1-1. During the course of the next few PKs, the U.S. team had two chances to win the Gold Medal but after each Canadian miss, the U.S. player shot the ball too close to the goalie who made the saves. After a few successful PKs back and forth, Canada ended up winning after the 8th Penalty Kick round and the U.S. settled for the silver medal.
The Maccabiah Games were fun and exciting but above the soccer and beyond the competition, what mattered most was the experience itself, the history, religion, and diversity of the places and people of Israel, and the friendships that were made and the memories that accrued while touring this unique and fascinating country. Amanda certainly could not have imagined when she began playing intramural soccer at the age of 5 in Jericho or even while playing varsity soccer for Jericho High School that her growth and development in the sport would lead her to such a meaningful life experience and create memories that will last a lifetime.