THE TEAM USA YOU HAVE NEVER HEARD OF
By Al Mattei
A field hockey team is invited to an international tournament, though it has eight on the roster.
Problem? No problem. The organizers turned the tournament into a 7-on-7 format and furnished three small teams to fill out the field.
The local transportation system was slow and sometimes three hours late, making the traveling team habitually late for its games.
No problem? Problem.
Welcome to life as a member of the U.S. Maccabiah women's field hockey team, the Team USA you have never heard of.
Sponsored through United States Committee for Sports for Israel, American field hockey hockey players have competed in the Maccabiah World Games -- the world's third largest sporting event behind the Olympics and the FIFA World Cup of men's soccer -- since 1989.
In addition, there have been field hockey competitions at the Maccabiah Pan American Games. It was from the 1995 Maccabiah Pan Am Games in Argentina, from whence the aforementioned story comes. There, as elsewhere, full teams are not necessarily a guarantee from the United States.
Indeed, only a handful of players were available for the first Maccabiah field hockey event in 1989, and those American players were lumped together with other players in a "Rest Of The World" team.
For the next Maccabiah World Games in 1993, Mim Chappell-Eber helped lead a full team.
"It was the first team that we had a team from the U.S., and we won the bronze medal," said Chappell-Eber, who at the time was the head coach of Far Hills (N.J.) Country Day School. "It was good for our first time out."
Since then, U.S. Maccabiah field hockey teams have been a fixture in both the Maccabiah World Games and the Maccabiah Pan-Am Games. One of the players who has been instrumental in the teams' successes has been Robin Selbst, once a fullback from Trenton State College.
"When I heard through the grapevine that there was a Maccabiah team, I figured I would try out," Selbst said ofher 1993 tryout. "The talent range was a wide range, from older players to high-schoolers. And they ended up with around 16 players."
There was a similar spread of ages in 1997. The youngest player that year was Kim Smith, who was a scholastic star at Baltimore Bryn Mawr (Md.).
"I was just 17; the next younger person was a senior in college, so there was a big age difference," Smith says. "but that made the experience so much more unique."
But the 1997 Maccabiah Games was less memorable for its field hockey than a human tragedy. During the opening ceremonies, a wood and aluminum footbridge, hastily constructed for the Games, collapsed during the Parade of Athletes. The collapse killing several athletes and injured many others in the Austrian and Australian delegations. And, in the Hebrew alphabet, the United States team was not all the way back in the "U"s, but in the "A"s.
"We were two countries behind Australia when they had gone through," Selbst said. "They had to suspend all of the opening ceremonies, and they had to gain control of the situation."
"I had the responsibility of being a player and a coach, and I couldn't allow our players to go to the memorial service, in good concience," Chappell-Eber said. "As a player, I wanted to go. And part of me really needed to go. The problem was that we had a game at 7:30 the next morning. We had a rabbi come and speak to us. The whole thing brought us together."
The entire Maccabiah experience is one which is not only one which is cognizant of history, but spirituality. Many special things have happened to the players of Team USA in their short history, not the least of which was the feeling of being together with athletes from around the world.
"When we were going in for the opening ceremonies, wearing our uniforms, we were feeling the pride of not only representing the United States, but the Jewish people of the United States," Selbst says.
There are stories about the visits to hospitals to see sick children. There are the emotional visits to the children's memorial at the Holocaust museum. There was Smith's bat mitzvah ceremony held right in the middle of the Games.
"I enjoyed myself more in 1997 than in 1993, because back then it was something completely new," Selbst said. "In 1997, I was able to find what I wanted, and take advantage of the opportunities involved."
The Americans won bronze in 1997, duplicating the 1993 effort.
"To get a bronze, we were all very happy," Smith says. "To compete with the likes of Argentina and Brazil was very good. It prepared me to play field hockey at Princeton."
The next Maccabiah Pan American Games are scheduled for Santiago, Chile in December 2003. For more information on Maccabiah athletics in the United States, here is a link to the Maccabi USA Sports For Israel website.