By Emily Burack
The 2020 Tokyo Olympics are finally happening, a full year after they were planned. And yes, they’re still being called the 2020 Olympics, even though they’re happening in 2021.
The Jewish athletes competing this year — and there are many — are the products of inspiring journeys. There’s the fencer looking for redemption, Israel’s first Olympic surfer, one of the greatest canoe paddlers of all time, a teen track star para-athlete, and so many more.
The games run July 23 through Aug. 8; the Paralympics will be held Aug. 24 to Sept. 5.
Here are many of the inspiring Jewish athletes to root for.
Is Sue Bird one of the greatest Jewish athletes of all time? Perhaps.
The basketball legend has won gold medals with the U.S. women’s basketball team in the last four — yes, four — Olympics. (The team has not lost at the games since 1992.) Bird, now 40, is back for her fifth, and likely last, Olympics.
The child of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother, Bird was born and raised in Syosset, Long Island. She’s been a basketball star since her debut for the University of Connecticut in 1998 and selection as the WNBA’s No. 1 overall draft pick in 2002 by the Seattle Storm. In her nearly 20 years as a pro, Bird has won four WNBA championships (including last year in the COVID-19 bubble) and is a 12-time All-Star.
Bird also gained Israeli citizenship in 2006 in a basketball-motivated decision, so she could play for European teams. Her citizenship also allowed her to connect to her Jewish identity.
“It was cool because what I found was in this effort to create an opportunity in my basketball career, I was able to learn a lot about a culture that I probably wouldn’t have tapped into otherwise,” Bird told the Washington Jewish Museum.
The women’s basketball tournament begins on July 26; the U.S. plays its first game on July 27 against Nigeria. The gold medal game is Aug. 8.
Rhythmic Gymnastics, Israel
Israel’s best chance at winning a medal is 22-year-old Linoy Ashram. The Mizrahi and Sephardi gymnast (her father is Yemeni Jewish and her mother is Greek Jewish) is set to compete in her first Olympics after winning in the individual rhythmic category at the European Championships in 2020 — the first athlete to take the gold medal in decades who was not from a former Soviet country or Bulgaria.
Ashram has many firsts for her country: She’s the first rhythmic gymnast from Israel to win an individual all-around medal at the World Championships, the first to win gold in the World Cup series and the first to win a European All-Around title. Can she be the first to win gold in gymnastics at the Olympics? We’ll find out early next month.
The rhythmic gymnastics competition takes place Aug. 6-8.
Diego Schwartzman is the highest-ranked Jewish tennis player in the world. Last year he broke into the top 10 for the first time, becoming the shortest top 8 player since 5-foot-6 Harold Solomon, also Jewish, in 1981. The Argentine’s listed height of 5-7 is called “one of the more generous measurements in professional sports” — he likely stands around 5-4 (the U.S. Open lists him at 5-5). Watching him go shot to shot with players that are over a foot taller is nothing short of remarkable.
Nicknamed “El Peque,” or “Shorty,” the 28-year-old is set to play in his first Olympics. (For tennis, qualifications are based on world rankings, with the top 56 players becoming eligible.)
Schwartzman is open about and proud of his Jewish identity. Last year he wrote movingly on his family’s Holocaust history, and how his great-grandfather escaped a train car headed for a concentration camp and ended up in Argentina.
“I am Jewish and in Argentina, we have many Jewish [people] there, and all the people there know me,” he told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in 2017.
The men’s tennis tournament begins on July 24.
Beach volleyball, USA
Alix Klineman had played indoor volleyball for Stanford in college and professionally following her graduation in 2011. But in 2016, she failed to make the U.S. Olympic Volleyball Team and vowed to find another way to compete at the games. So she switched to beach volleyball. Unlike indoor volleyball, which has teams with rosters selected by coaches, beach volleyball is a two-person sport dependent on your own results with a partner.
“I looked at the beach as a new opportunity and a chance to chase my dreams without anybody having to give me approval or put me on a roster,” she said in 2019. “The biggest thing was pursuing the Olympics and getting a new shot at that.”
Klineman teamed with two-time Olympian April Ross — she had been partnered with three-time gold medalist Kerri Walsh Jennings — and they quickly rose in the rankings. They are entering the Tokyo Games with a world ranking of No. 2, with a more than solid chance of winning gold.
Klineman, 31, was raised in Southern California in a Jewish family. In 2015, she was inducted into the SoCal Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.
The women’s beach volleyball tournament begins on July 24.
Anat Lelior is Israel’s first — and only — Olympic surfer. Surfing is new to the Olympics, and only 20 men and 20 women will be competing this summer. Lelior, 21, qualified as the highest-ranked female surfer from Europe (Israel competes in European leagues). Lelior, who hails from Tel Aviv and served in the Israeli military, started surfing at 5, and by 12 she had won the Israeli national championships.
“I know people aren’t aware of surfing in Israel, and the fact that I get to be the one to show people that we’re capable of more than they think, that’s just amazing,” Lelior told Surfline. “But more than that, I want to show kids, women, everyone from everywhere, that they can do anything they want. There’s no limits. I mean, look at me. I had no idea that this would happen, and now I’m going to the freaking Olympics.”
The surfing competition is subject to change depending on wave conditions at Tsurigasaki Surfing Beach. The women’s competition is tentatively scheduled for July 25-28.
The Cinderella story continues.
In 2017, Israel’s national baseball team — which included several American Jewish players who became Israeli citizens to represent the country — surprised observers by placing sixth at the World Baseball Classic, an international tournament of the world’s best teams, with wins over top squads from South Korea, Chinese Taipei, the Netherlands and Cuba. Israel was far from a top-10 powerhouse at the time, not even ranked in the top 10 teams in Europe. That made sense, as few Israelis play the sport.
Along the way, the team ginned up enthusiasm for baseball in Israel and gave some under-the-radar Jewish players, many who had spent several years in the minor leagues, new chances to shine. Oh, and there was that endearing mascot — a life-sized Mensch on a Bench.
In 2019, Team Israel won the European Baseball Championship to qualify for the Olympics. The current roster is anchored by de facto captain Danny Valencia — who has Cuban and Jewish heritage and hit 96 home runs over eight Major League Baseball seasons — and Ian Kinsler, a former four-time MLB All-Star who made it to Israel on one of the last flights before COVID-19 shutdowns last year to earn his Israeli citizenship.
Only six teams are in play (the field also includes South Korea, Japan, Mexico, the Dominican Republic and the United States), so Team Israel has a chance of snagging a medal.
Read more on Ian Kinsler here, and keep an eye out for more JTA coverage of the team closer to the games.
The baseball tournament runs July 28-Aug. 7. Israel’s first game is against the United States.
Canoe slalom, Australia
Jessica Fox is known as the greatest paddler of all time: She has 10 World Championship medals, including seven gold medals, and seven overall World Cup titles. Her parents, Richard Fox and Myriam Jerusalmi, also were Olympic canoeists — Myriam, a French-Jewish athlete, won bronze at the 1996 Atlanta Games. Mom is now coaching her daughter.
Born in Marseille, France, Fox moved to Australia at 4, so her dad could take up a coaching position with the Australian Olympic team.
“Both my parents competing in the Olympic Games is something pretty special,” she said. “It definitely inspired me to get to this position. Winning a medal is something that you dream [of] and I’m proud to follow in my mother’s footsteps.”
Fox, 27, won silver in the K-1 slalom competition at the 2012 London Olympics and bronze in the 2016 Rio Games. This year, for the first time, women will also be competing in C-1 slalom — so Fox, ranked No. 1 in the world, is favored to win not just one but two gold medals.
In 2012, Fox became the the second Australian Jewish athlete to ever win an Olympic medal.
The women’s K-1 slalom competition is July 25-27. C-1 slalom is July 28-29.
Eli Dershwitz is returning to the Olympics for redemption.
At the 2016 Rio Games, the Jewish saber fencer lost in the opening round. In 2021, he’s ranked No. 2 in the world and hoping to medal.
Dershwitz, who started fencing at 9, would win back-to-back NCAA championships for Harvard in 2017 and 2018. In Tokyo, he will aim to become the fifth U.S. man to win a medal in saber fencing. No American man has ever won gold in the category.
Born and raised in Sherborn, Massachusetts, to a Jewish family, Dershwitz’s maternal grandparents are Holocaust survivors. He has a twin sister, Sally, who worked on the frontlines caring for patients during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dershwitz grew up attending a Conservative synagogue in Natick, Massachusetts, and told Hillel International before the Rio Games that he considers himself a “proud member of the Jewish community.”
“The Jewish community has been very supportive throughout my journey to the Olympics, and I look forward to representing them on the world stage,” he said in 2016.
The men’s saber fencing individual competition takes place on July 24; the men’s saber team competition is on July 28.
Jemima Montag was perhaps destined for Jewish athletic greatness. Her parents, Ray and Amanda, met at the 1989 Maccabiah Games — the Olympics for Jewish athletes held in Israel — where Amanda was competing in the heptathlon and Ray was a cricketer. They hit it off on the flight home to Australia.
Growing up, the Montags encouraged their daughters (Jemima is one of three) to try everything, from long jump to shot put to ballet. But for Montag, race walking just clicked.
“I found that my combination of endurance, hypermobile joints and fiery competitiveness were a great trio for racewalking,” she said.
Montag soon became one of the best racewalkers in Australia, but after the World Youth Championships in 2015, she decided to step away from the sport. A family ski trip to Japan in 2017 reignited her competitive spirit. Her sister joked she’d love to return to the country for the Olympics, and her mom encouraged her to go for it. A year later, at the 2018 Commonwealth Games — a tournament of the Commonwealth nations, or the former territories under British control — Montag won gold in the 20km event.
Montag credits her Holocaust survivor grandparents for her work ethic and resilience. When a training session or race feels tough, she thinks about them and reminds herself that “grit and perseverance are in my DNA.”
The women’s 20km race walk will take place on Aug. 6.
At the 2016 Rio Olympics, Or “Ori” Sasson won bronze in the men’s heavyweight judo competition and became a national hero overnight — not just for his skill but also his sportsmanship after one of his opponents, from Egypt, refused to shake his hand following a match.
“Every boy and girl saw not only a great athlete but a man with values,” then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Sasson in a phone call that was broadcast live on Israeli TV. “You showed the true face of Israel, its beautiful face.”
Sasson spent the pandemic year delay competing on Israel’s version of “The Masked Singer” — his costume was a falafel sandwich — and finished third. Watch one of his performances here.
This year, the Kurdish Jewish Sasson — now 30 and likely in his last Olympics — is set to compete in the heavyweight competition and in the team competition, an addition to the Olympics judo lineup. Judo has been the pride of Israel’s Olympic fortunes, winning five of the nation’s nine overall medals. (See more on one of Sasson’s teammates below.)
The men’s 100+ kg competition is on July 30. The team competition is on July 31.
Sagi Muki made headlines when he befriended an Iranian judoka, Saeid Mollaei, who was forced to throw a match to avoid competing against an Israeli athlete. Mollaei fled Iran as a dissident and received refugee status in Germany. The story of their friendship is now being made into a TV show.
But Muki, 29, is an Olympic medal contender in his own right. The half-middleweight judoka is a two-time Israeli national champion, a 2019 world champion, and the 2017 and 2018 European champion. He was expected to medal at the 2016 Rio Games but was hampered by an injury.
Born and raised in Netanya, Israel, to a Yemeni Jewish family, he started focusing on judo when he was 8 years old.
The men’s under-81 kg competition is on July 27.
Maru Teferi, who was born in northwestern Ethiopia and immigrated to Israel with his Jewish family when he was 14, is the Israeli record holder in six distances, including the half marathon and the marathon. His fastest marathon time of 2:07:20, run right before the pandemic in February 2020 — is just 6 minutes off the world record.
Now he’s set to compete in his second Olympics. This time he’ll be joined by his wife, Selamawit “Selam” Dagnachew Teferi. They’ll be the first married couple to represent Israel at the Olympics.
Teferi, 28, met now-wife Selam while training in Ethiopia in 2012. Selam, 27, is not Jewish, but she moved to Israel in 2017 after the couple married and became an Israeli citizen. That made her eligible to represent Israel at the Olympics.
“Even in our wildest dreams, we didn’t think this would be possible,” Selam said.
The men’s marathon will take place on the last day of the Olympics, Aug. 8. To watch Selam, the women’s 5,000m competition begins July 30; the finals are Aug. 2. The women’s 10,000m is on Aug. 7.
Avi Koki Schafer is sometimes listed at 6-foot-10. With that height, you would think he has played basketball his entire life. But the Japanese Jewish athlete didn’t get into the sport until he was 16. Just seven years later, the 23-year-old will be playing for Japan in the country’s home Olympics.
Schafer, whose mom is Japanese and dad is Jewish American, grew up in Japan but spent his senior year of high school playing for Brewster Academy in New Hampshire before going on to play Division I basketball at Georgia Tech for two years.
He left his sophomore year to go pro in Japan and since 2019 has played professionally in his native country.
“When I came back to Japan from the United States and decided to become a professional in Japan, I made the decision with an eye on the Olympics,” he said shortly after being selected to the team. “It is held in my home country and I want to show Japanese people what I can do.”
The men’s basketball tournament begins July 25. Japan’s first match is against Spain on July 26.
Paralympics track and field, USA
Ezra Frech is only 16 years old, but he’s already made a name for himself as a para-athlete. The Los Angeles native competes in the high jump, long jump and the 100m race.
Due to a congenital abnormality, Frech was born with only one finger on his left hand, and he was missing his left knee and shinbone. At 2 he had surgery to remove the curved part of his leg, and had a toe attached to his left hand. By 9 he was on “Ellen” talking about his athletics and advocating for adaptive sports, and at the 2019 World Para Athletics Championships, he was the youngest athlete in the world to compete at 14.
“Everywhere you go, people don’t think you’re capable of what an able-bodied person can do,” Frech said. “I’ll go to my high school track meet and they don’t expect the one-legged kid to go out and win the competition. When I was younger it got to me, but now it’s a motivation and excites me that I have a chance to prove people wrong, to shock them and turn some heads.”
His mom, Bahar Soomekh, is a Persian Jewish actress. She fled Iran with her family in 1979. His dad, Clayton Frech, left his job in 2013 to found Angel City Sports — to bring adaptive sports opportunities to Los Angeles.
Frech said his goal in Tokyo is to win multiple medals. He has no shortage of confidence it will happen.
“You can quote me on this: I will be a multi medalist when I walk away from Tokyo,” he said. “We can look back after the Games and I’ll say ‘I called it.’”
Israel has another marathoner in Maor Tiyouri. Like Teferi, this is Tiyouri’s second Olympics, but qualifying this time was much more challenging for the 30-year-old runner. For the women’s marathon competition, the Olympic standard — the time needed to qualify for the games — dropped 15 minutes, from 2 hours, 45 minutes to 2:29:30. For Tiyouri, that meant running 13 minutes faster than her personal best.
“When they changed it back in 2018 I was devastated because it seemed like such a huge jump at the time and I didn’t fully believe then that I could quite get it in time for Tokyo,” Tiyouri told Alma. “I knew I had to raise my game if I wanted to be on that starting line.” And she made it — running 2:29:03 in April.
Her grandparents are from Iran and Iraq, and she is proud to represent the Jewish nation.
“Representing Israel, such a small country that has known so many hardships in the little amount of time she existed, is such an honor and a privilege,” Tiyouri said.
The women’s marathon will take place on Aug. 7. Tiyouri will be joined by Lonah Chemtai Salpeter, a Kenyan-Israeli runner who gained Israeli citizenship through marriage in March 2016 and ran for Israel in the 2016 Olympics.
Paralympics rowing, Israel
Moran Samuel won a Paralympic medal at the 2016 games in Rio, taking bronze in the women’s 1,000-meter single sculls rowing competition.
Samuel, 39, grew up playing basketball, and was a member of the Israeli women’s national team. In 2006, at the age of 24, she suffered a spinal stroke and was paralyzed in her lower body. She started playing wheelchair basketball, then decided to try rowing to get to the Paralympic Games.
Her two biggest dreams were becoming a mother and winning an Olympic medal — and now she’s achieved both.
Paralympics swimming, Australia
Matthew Levy is returning to compete in his fifth Paralympics. The Australian Jewish swimmer, 34, competes in the freestyle, butterfly and medley races.
Levy was born premature at 25 weeks with cerebral palsy and vision impairment. Following many surgeries, he started swimming at 5 as part of his rehabilitation. At 12 he realized he could swim competitively.
Levy made his Paralympic debut at the 2004 Athens Paralympics. At the 2008 Beijing Games, he won his first medal — gold in the 4x100m medley. At the 2012 London Games he won five medals (a gold, a silver and three bronze), and at the 2016 Rio Games, he took home a bronze medal. He’s looking to add to his medal count in Tokyo as the oldest member of the Australian Paralympic swimming team.
Two fun facts: In 2014, Levy was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia for his contributions to sport. And in 2017, at the Maccabiah Games, Levy became the first person in its history to break a world record while competing there.