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Winter Olympics 2018: five Jewish storylines to watch

  • JTAWinterOlympics
The world is about to revolve around Pyeongchang, a mountainous county in the northern half of South Korea, for the upcoming Winter Olympics.
by GABE FRIEDMAN | Feb 01, 2018

Jewish fans won’t have quite as many standout athletes to cheer for this year as they did in 2016, when multiple American members of the tribe won medals at the Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro. But there are several compelling Jewish stories to catch up on before the action starts.

Israel is sending its largest team ever

Before this year, the largest Israeli delegation at a Winter Olympics comprised five athletes. That shouldn’t sound too surprising, given that more than 60% of the country’s landscape is desert, and it isn’t the best place for winter sports training.

This year, however, the record will double.

Seven of Israel’s 10 representatives will compete in figure skating. That group is anchored by Alexei Bychenko, who in 2016 became the first skater to earn a medal for Israel at a European Championships event. Bychenko, 29, who skated for Ukraine until 2009 and has been ranked as one of the top 10 male skaters in the world, is likely to be Israel’s best chance to win a medal (and, like US Jewish gymnast Aly Raisman, Bychenko has been known to perform to Hava Nagila).

The Jewish state is sending another kind of skater, too – the faster kind. Vladislav Bykanov, who won a bronze medal earlier this month at the European Championships, will compete in speed skating. Itamar Biran, a 19-year-old born in London, will represent Israel in alpine skiing.

This American never thought she’d do pairs skating – or compete for Israel

Paige Conners is having her Olympic dream come true in about the last way she expected.

According to a video by news agency ABC, the 17-year-old Conners was ill when she was supposed to try out for the US figure skating team. With her hopes of competing in peril, her mother, who has Israeli citizenship, pointed out another opportunity: skating for the Israeli team.

Conners jumped at the opportunity, but Israel offered her a spot only if she competed in the pairs competition. She had never tried it before and thought she never would. But she quickly connected with Evgeni Krasnopolski, a 29-year-old pairs veteran, and barely six months after Conners adopted the new style, the duo performed well enough at the Olympic qualifiers in September to make the cut.

Israel’s first skeleton Olympian

A few years ago, AJ Edelman was a graduate from Massachusetts Institute of Technology who worked as a product manager for Oracle. Now the Brookline, Massachusetts, native will get a chance to make history for Israel as he becomes the country’s first skeleton Olympian next week, steering a flimsy sled down the track at the Pyeongchang Sliding Centre.

“I want to challenge the perception of what Jews and Israelis can do in sports,” he said.

A former NHL player gets another chance to play for the US

Jonathon Blum probably longs for the time he spent playing in the US’s National Hockey League (NHL). These days, the Jewish 29-year-old plays for a team in Vladivostok, Russia – a city so remote that flights of six hours or more are required to play 24 of its 26 opponents. It is closer to Alaska than it is to Saint Petersburg.

Blum, a former first-round NHL draft pick, played for the Nashville Predators from 2010 to 2012, again in 2012-13, and for the Minnesota Wild for stints in the 2013-14 and 2014-15 seasons. Those cities are just a little closer to where he grew up in southern California.

This year, the NHL would not let its players participate in the Olympics to protect them from injuries. That opened the door for non-NHL players like Blum, a 6-foot-2 defenceman who has played on the US team before, to represent his native country in South Korea.

Israel isn’t the only country sending Jewish skaters

On the US squad, look out for Jason Brown if he gets a chance to skate. After a disappointing performance at the US Figure Skating Championships in January, Brown is the US team’s first alternate. But on the ice, the 23-year-old is known for skating to music from Riverdance and Hamilton.

And who would have thought that a certified Krav Maga instructor would skate for Canada and not Israel? Dylan Moscovitch helped Canada win a team silver medal in Sochi four years ago, and he’s back competing in the pairs contest with partner Liubov Ilyuschechkina. (JTA)

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