‘Winning’ Documentary Goes Beyond Playing Field, Explores Ability to Excel

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Nadia Comaneci and Jacqueline Joseph | Photo provided

Everyone starts out with the same goal to succeed in life. Some are just better at it than others.

Finding out why they’re able to excel is the inspiration behind Winning, the documentary that examines the lives of five athletes, whose accomplishments are known worldwide. It makes its Philadelphia area premiere Oct. 18 at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute.

Producer and Director Jacqueline Joseph, who grew up nearby and became a Bat Mitzvah at Congregation Rodeph Shalom, said the athletes’ stories really aren’t that different from everyone else’s.

How they managed to overcome adversity is what sets them apart.

“A cliché people say is [that] sports is a metaphor for life,” said Joseph, who interviewed all the athletes. “But it is. People put athletes on a pedestal and idolize them. But learning about their journeys and hearing their obstacles will let them relate. What they speak about and experienced translates for everybody.

“They can relate to what happens whether they’re an athlete or not, because everybody has something they’re very passionate about. … The hope is finding that passion and pursuing it and taking it to the next level is what people take away when they see the film.”

Joseph, who played for the Stanford University’s NCAA championship women’s tennis team, then briefly played professionally, compiled a list of potential subjects, then went through the painstaking process of trying to get them to agree to be in the film. She wanted athletes who’d reached the pinnacle more than once, focusing on those in individual rather than team sports.

That’s how she came up with Jack, Martina, Nadia, Esther and Edwin, big enough names in her mind that their surnames weren’t necessary. You can argue that point, particularly regarding Dutch paralympian Esther Vergeer and hurdler Edwin Moses, who won two Olympic gold medals and 122 consecutive races over a 10-year span. Golfer Jack Nicklaus, tennis player Martina Navratilova and gymnast Nadia Comaneci need no further explanation.

“They’re all successful athletes who have faced challenges, and we work really hard to portray that in the film,” said Joseph, who’s working on new projects, one of which has a Holocaust-related theme. “One of the things people will see is how comfortable they are talking about their insecurities and also their successes.

“I was looking for athletes who hadn’t just won more than once, but have transformed themselves and their sport and also transcended sport. Martina brought that not only into tennis but women’s sports in general. Nadia [who won three gold medals and scored the first perfect 10 in gymnastics in the 1976 Olympics in Montreal] is remembered four decades later. There was something about her story that connected more than what she accomplished.”

The filmmaking process took a couple of years and included visits to the Czech Republic to meet Navratilova’s sister, Jana, as well as Oklahoma, home of Comaneci and her husband, former U.S. Olympic gymnast Bart Conner. While there’s no specific Jewish theme, there’s much common ground, particularly when it comes to the discrimination an African-American like Moses, a lesbian like Navratilova or a disabled woman like Vergeer faces.

That theme strikes close to home for Joseph.

“I was in Dachau 10 years ago and have seen probably every film about the Holocaust,” said Joseph, who indicated the film will be released nationally later this year. “And I certainly experienced anti-Semitism multiple times in my life. There were places I couldn’t join because I was Jewish. That’s why Judaism is an important part of my identity. It’s not a connection to the film but to my identity because I’ve always had a desire to do something meaningful and be passionate about it.”

Whatever expectations she had when the project began were well exceeded.

“Somebody once said to me that you start out with an idea of what a film is going to be and if that’s how it turns out, then it’s not going to be a good film,” she said. “Ultimately this did evolve into something different. One of the things I found interesting is that I expected certain questions to yield fascinating answers. But the moments that were most meaningful were the least expected. I knew instantly they were going in the film.”

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