Thirty thousand spectators; ten thousand athletes; eighty five countries; forty five sports; one heart. The Maccabiah Games. The “Jewish Olympics”.
‘Please welcome Team South Africa!’
A wave of green and gold flooded the stage in the centre of the stadium. Flags waved in the warm wind. Spectators cheered over the music. I was there somewhere in the sea of green and gold, waving my own flag and cheering for my own team, filled with indescribable pride and joy of representing my country. My feet ached and my head was pounding because we had waited in a stuffy, dark passage without food or water or anywhere to sit for five hours. But the second I walked up those stairs and onto that stage everything changed. My hunger turned into tingling pride. My aching feet started to give a little spring to my step. The corners of my dry mouth turned up into a smile. It was magical. And that was just the opening ceremony to set the tone for the next three weeks.
It took months and months of hard work, sweat, tears and overcoming challenges to get there. I had to learn to work with a group of girls who I had mostly never met before. I had to learn how to play a new position. I had to make tough sacrifices. I had to miss out on other things I really wanted to do. And it was worth every second. I was there to play netball, but it wasn’t just about the win. It was about the feeling I got every time the ball went swoosh through the net. Or the hoarseness in my throat after screaming from the sideline for my team at the end of a nail-biting quarter. It was about shaking my opponent’s hand after a match and finding out we like the same things. It was about spending hours on a tour bus with French boys. It was about walking in the shuk with Australians and Mexicans. It was about the experience. It was about meeting people just like me from all over the world. It was about people being united by something bigger than ourselves. It was about one heart.
I am a seventeen year old South African Jew. Sitting two tables away from me at lunch was a sixteen year old British Jew who runs the hundred metre sprint. I learned Japanese from Sam, who came to Israel by himself and won a silver medal in fencing. I traded pins with a fifteen year old American Jew who plays lacrosse. Before this, I did not even know what lacrosse was; that is the whole point.
The Maccabiah Games bring people together from places you cannot imagine. Did you know there were Jews in Azerbaijan? And Kyrgyzstan? Where even is Kyrgyzstan? All of us are so different. We grew up with different traditions and on opposite sides of the world. More than half the people I met had no idea what netball was, but for me it’s what I’ve grown up playing since I was seven. I must have explained “it’s kind of like basketball, but there’s more rules” at least thirty two times. Our paths would never have crossed except for two tiny details. We are all Jewish. And we all love sports. Because of that, we were united. We have one heart.
I would not say it was a relaxing three weeks, or much of a holiday, but it was a genuinely incredible three weeks. We sang, we danced, we cheered, we toured, we connected, we made friends and we played our sports. Although I have a beautiful bronze medal (that I like to refer to as “rose gold”) to show, it was not about the win or the loss. It does make great wall decor, but the experience will stay with me forever. I met so many new people from so many different places. I saw an infinite variety of new things. I had an unimaginable amount of fun with a group of people that are my new best friends. I fought until the end with my team. I grew stronger. I grew prouder. The memories and connections I made mean more to me than any piece of metal ever could. I may not be able to look at them and touch them, but I can relive them in my mind every single day.