Chomping At The Bit

June 13, 2013
BY David Snyder
Local athletes primed for 19th Maccabiah Games
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Pikesville native Gary Weisbaum is coming out of “retirement” in hopes of ending his soccer career on a high note. (Larry French)

From his youth programs to his college squad to the adult leagues he plays in now, Darin Segal has always laid claim as the lone Jew on his ice hockey teams.

“It’s not really a Jewish ‘go-to’ sport,” Segal, 40, said.

Therein lies the beauty, at least in part, of the Maccabiah Games. When the action gets under way next month in Israel, Segal will unite with fellow teammates from across the United States who, like him, were the only Jews on their respective hockey teams growing up.

Segal, of Columbia, is among the several players from the Baltimore area headed to the homeland for the 2013 Games. Spanning the last two weeks of July, the event — held in Israel for the 19th time dating to 1932 — is comprised of 31 different sports spread out over three age classes. Segal will be competing in the masters division for players 40 and older.

While the Games provide Segal with another opportunity to play the sport he loves, the pride runs much deeper than the athletic aspect alone. Very few get the chance to compete on an international stage or to wear a jersey with the name of one’s country embroidered across the front. And, it all takes place in Israel.

“That’s the bonus right there,” Segal said. “I’ve been able to compete at all levels my entire life … [but] once you actually get to put on a USA jersey and get to represent the United States, and being able to do it as a Jew, in Israel, on the [country’s] 65th anniversary — that’s going to be pretty special.”

Unfinished Business
Joining Segal in the masters division is 57-year-old Severna Park native Neil Schechter, who is one of eight players in that group to represent the U.S. in men’s tennis.

Schechter is on a mission to take care of some unfinished business.

At the 17th Maccabiah in 2005, he bowed out in the second round of the men’s singles draw when a hamstring pull caused him to lose a decisive tiebreak and then the match.

This time around, he’s looking to advance much deeper.

Since trying out and making the team this past fall, Schechter has been training on the tennis court practically every day. He was hesitant to divulge the keys to his game (joking that his opponents could scout him out), but said his heavy training regimen will help him stay loose and preserve stamina under the relentless July heat.

“Despite my age, I still feel like I play a whole lot like I did when I was 16,” Schechter said. “I like a big serve and heavy strokes. … I still move around pretty well for an old guy.”

In terms of the experience, Schechter is looking forward to the opening ceremonies, where delegations march in to Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem, similar to the Olympics’ procession. He also enjoys the degree of popularity Maccabiah athletes are treated to in Israel.

“It’s a big deal in Israel, it’s televised,” Schechter said. “The last time I was there, people came up to talk to me, asked questions. It was flattering and fun. Israel is very much into this.”

Keeping A Promise
While Schechter is making a return trip, longtime friends Sara Ruzzi and Kayla Devlin are stoked to take part for the first time. They’re equally excited that they’ll be able to do it together.

Both members of Temple Beth Shalom in Arnold, Ruzzi and Devlin each vowed at their respective bat mitzvahs more than four years ago that they would make the Maccabi field hockey team in 2013. They were in part inspired by Devlin’s older sister, Becca, who competed on the 2009 squad that fell to the Netherlands in the gold medal game.

As participants in the open division, usually comprised of players 18 to 35, the recent high school graduates (Ruzzi from Broadneck High School and Devlin from Annapolis High School) will be two of the youngest players on the team.

While both admitted to being a little intimidated at first — the squad is stocked with college players as well as some college coaches — they have settled in and quickly learned that, on the field, it’s more about performance than age.

“At our practice the other day, we all said how old we are,” Devlin, 18, said. “But when we started playing, that didn’t matter. The older players were challenging the younger players, and the young challenged the old. I think we sort of put age aside when we’re playing.”

And because both figure to receive playing time on the defensive end, where communication is especially paramount, the duo can’t be timid about making their voices heard.

“If there are older girls who are distinct leaders, I won’t take away from them,” Ruzzi, 17, said. “But I’m not afraid to tell them something whether it’s constructive criticism or positive reinforcement.”

Ruzzi and Devlin are certainly steadfast about what they can bring to the field, however both are still wrapping their heads around the experience that is to come, particularly that they will be competing on an international stage.

“That’s just mind blowing to me,” Ruzzi said. “I’ve been playing sports all my life, and I did not know they could take me this far. Playing for the U.S. is an honor that I can’t even comprehend sometimes.”

For both girls, the Games will serve as a gateway to their collegiate athletic careers. Ruzzi is set to attend Columbia University, where she will play on the school’s lacrosse team, while Devlin heads to the University of Delaware, where she will join its field hockey squad.

A Second Wind
On the other end up the spectrum, Gary Weisbaum’s college soccer career came to an end this fall.

The Pikesville native was a senior captain on a Loyola University Maryland team that lost in its conference finals and was not selected to participate in the NCAA soccer tournament. For Weisbaum, 23, it was a sour ending to a talented soccer career.

After testing the waters with pro and semipro teams, Weisbaum made the decision to temper his soccer aspirations and enter the standard workforce, taking a job for a staffing company in Arlington, Va. However, he lamented the way his playing career finished.

“It sucked,” he said. “I wasn’t sure if I was going to get another go-round.”

Thanks to the Maccabiah Games, Weisbaum will get the chance rewrite his ending. He beat out hundreds of other players nationwide to earn a spot on the men’s soccer squad in the open division.

“Having this opportunity as a second wind, it’s not my goodbye to soccer, but this is the hardest I’ve trained in my life,” Weisbaum said. “I want to go out with a bang for sure. … I’m not going there to party and live it up. I want to win.”

Weisbaum is hoping to contribute as a starting midfielder, both as a leader and a distributor in the center of the field. Leading up to the Games, he’s swimming and running every night when he gets home from work to give himself the best chance of warranting prime minutes (in the eyes of his coaches) when game time arrives.

“I’m putting it in my own hands. If I get beat out and I don’t get a starting spot, I won’t have a sour taste because I’ve been working so hard,” Weisbaum said. “If you want to play at this level, you need to believe you’re the best.”

Regardless of how many minutes he gets on the field, Weisbaum called the chance to represent the U.S. in this type of setting “a lifetime dream.”

“It brings a different type of pride,” he said. “I grew up in a Jewish household, in a kosher home, I went to Jewish day school, I know Hebrew, I have family members who made aliyah. Being able to represent your country as well as your religion is a special feeling.”

David Snyder is a JT staff reporter — dsnyder@jewishtimes.com

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