College Recruits Wear Stars and Stripes at 2022 Maccabiah Games

This spring’s level 10 nationals signified the end of many gymnasts’ pre-college careers, but the 21st Maccabiah Games — held from July 12 to 26, 2022 —  served as another opportunity for a select few to compete again. More than that, they would represent their country abroad in a multi-sport tournament celebrating and strengthening each athlete’s Jewish culture.

The Maccabiah Games is the third largest sporting event in the world by population, showcasing 10,000 Jewish athletes from 80 countries. The quadrennial multi-sport competition first happened in 1932 was held for the 21st time this summer, set across four major hub cities in Israel: Jerusalem, Tel-Aviv, Haifa and Netanya. 

The race for women’s gymnastics team gold often comes down to the Israeli National Team and the gymnasts representing Maccabi USA in a FIG rules 5-5-3 event. Maccabi USA’s medal hopes lay in good hands, with three of its five senior women’s team members already signed to Division I gymnastics teams: Lauren Brendlinger (Maryland ‘27), Shani Sirota (Maryland ‘26) and Hana Strause (Yale ‘26). 

For six days prior to the Maccabiah Games opening ceremony, every athlete representing the United States participated in a cross-country tour of Israel, provided by Israel Connect. For many, this comprehensive trip including modern cultural, historical and religious destinations is the highlight of their Maccabiah experiences. Keynote destinations on Israel Connect’s tour included the Dead Sea, the Western Wall and Yad Vashem. Rising freshman Sirota says she loved touring the country and meeting people from all over the world. After initially hearing about Maccabiah through a former teammate, then having to maintain consistency and skills for an extra year due to pandemic restrictions, her adventures outside of gymnastics only improved her experiences at the Games. 

Women’s artistic, men’s artistic and rhythmic gymnastics competitions were held at the Maccabiah, each with their own senior and junior meets. With the tournament always being the year after the Olympics, the host nation was eager to watch its stars go head to head with the best from the Jewish diaspora. This summer’s edition was no different: Olympic Champion Artem Dogolpyat was slated to compete on the men’s side until a minor ankle injury in the weeks leading up to the Games, and 2021 Olympian Lihie Raz came in as the heavy favorite on the women’s side. The Open Women’s Artistic Gymnastics subdivisions took place on July 18, 2022 at the National Training Center in Tel-Aviv’s Hadar Yosef neighborhood. The team final, all-around final and event finals were determined in one action-packed round of competition, with medals following the final subdivision. 

This Maccabiah proved a successful assignment for the American delegation, bringing home 31 medals between their junior and open men’s and women’s teams. Five of these were earned by the open women: silvers on beam (12.250/4.8), floor (12.050/4.8) and in the all-around (46.350/16.0) for Strause, bronze on vault (12.350 average) for Brendlinger and team silver. Raz swept the events and all-around to help Israel to the team gold, finishing ahead of USA, then Argentina, Canada, Chile and Brazil, respectively. 

Typically, Maccabi USA’s trial process includes an in-person meet in Oklahoma to decide which athletes will compete. This year, however, the trial process was completely virtual. Coaches Dan Ribiero and Evan Eigner selected the team based on past competition videos and the athletes’ abilities to adapt from level 10 to FIG rules. While uploading competition videos didn’t prove an issue, Sirota notes that proving readiness on bars was a challenge. “I had to change the majority of my bar routine. The only skill that I would be doing in college is my shootover,” she shared. Contrasting bars, floor was what she most looked forward to — showing off a routine for an interactive crowd was a highlight echoed by many at the competition. 

How to sum up three weeks abroad doing the sport she loves? The incoming Terp wraps it up by saying, “It’s a really awesome experience to see all these Jewish athletes come together and compete. There’s no better feeling than walking around in USA Maccabi gear. It’s amazing how much I have learned and embraced about Judaism on this trip.”

The 22nd Maccabiah Games are slated for the summer of 2025. With an upward trend of college gymnasts competing simultaneously in elite, it’s only a matter of time until the Israeli crowd is treated to collegiate routines from Maccabi USA.

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Article by Peri Goodman

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