Jennie Shulkin, a 20-year-old tennis player from Gladwyne, recounts how it felt to compete in the 19th World Maccabiah Games in Israel this summer.
As I stepped off the plane in Tel Aviv with several other Maccabiah athletes in July, I was filled with emotion — excitement, nervousness and anticipation. I also felt pressure. That's nothing new for any high-level athlete, but the pressure I felt was different from the sensation I usually feel going into a tournament.
Perhaps this was because the Maccabiah is no ordinary tournament. For me, this is the most important competition there is because it takes place in Israel — a country I have visited four times and a country where I always feel a sense of belonging, like I am at home. Or perhaps it is because the event is an opportunity to represent the United States, further my Jewish identity and continue a family tradition.
Thirty-six years ago, my mother attended the 10th World Maccabiah Games. More than 60 years ago, my grandfather had hopes of competing in track-and-field, but World War II prevented that from happening. I have grown up hearing both of them tell me how special the Games are and what it would mean for me to participate in them.
Four years ago when I competed as a juniors squash player in the last Maccabiah, I remember my grandfather saying, “Don’t come home without gold.” Thank goodness I won. My grandparents did not come to the last Maccabiah, though. It was as though they were waiting to watch me compete at the more advanced “open” level or at least in tennis (which had always been my grandfather’s preference for me over squash).
This Maccabiah, I finally made the open women’s tennis team, and my mother, father, brother, grandmother and grandfather came to support me. This was my chance — not only for myself, but for my family as well — and I wanted to make sure everyone enjoyed the whole experience.
The first week of touring and training went by quickly. Then came the opening ceremony, which turned out to be one of the most moving nights I have ever experienced. Decorated from head to toe in red, white and blue sweats, I waves of patriotism run through me as the American delegation entered the arena, looked up in awe at the thousands of screaming fans and chanted “USA, USA…”
As amazing as it was to be part of the team representing America, nothing compared with the moment when I somehow laid eyes on my family in the crowd. I left my place in the group, ran over to the spectators’ seats and waved wildly, trying to get my family’s attention. They did not see me for a few moments, which gave me a chance to process the sight of them cheering for Team USA. When they saw me, they started waving and screaming louder. My mom ran over and kissed me, looking the happiest I have seen her. My grandfather seemed more alive and radiant than he had ever been. I could not believe that I found them in a sea of thousands of people, and I will never forget that moment.
A few days later, I was scheduled to play my first round of singles against a 30-something woman from Romania. Having not played competitive tennis for two years, I was quite nervous. But I was still able to pull out a not-so-pretty 7-6; 6-0 win. My next match was in women’s doubles against a Canadian team. My partner and I won 6-1; 6-1. My grandparents beamed after both wins and told me how proud they were.
They had to fly back to the United States after these two matches, but before they left, my grandfather said to me, “Unbelievable, Jennie, you made it…Congratulations.” Being able to come to his first Maccabiah at 90 years old and watch his granddaughter win a couple of matches was certainly a victory for him, and for all of us. As my mom said, “It’s always been a dream of mine to bring him to the Maccabiah.”
I ended up losing in the quarterfinals of singles and doubles to the same Israeli woman who won gold in singles and silver in doubles. While it would have been nice to bring home a medal, I know I have gained much more than a piece of hardware. I made Jewish friends from all over the world, represented my country, spent time in Israel and, hopefully, provided a wonderful memory for all of my family who came to support me.