Tokyo Olympics: All the Jewish athletes to watch

by | Jul 16, 2021 | Other News

Emily Burack

(JTA)—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, Aug. 24 to Sept. 5.

Here are some of the inspiring Jewish athletes to root for.

Sue Bird, Basketball, USA

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.

Linoy Ashram, 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.

Diego Schwartzman, Tennis, Argentina

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.

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.

Alix Klineman, 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.

Klineman teamed with two-time Olympian April Ross 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.

Anat Lelior, Surfing, Israel

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.

Team Israel, Baseball, Israel

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.

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 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.

Jessica Fox, 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.

Born in Marseille, France, Fox moved to Australia at 4, so her dad could take up a coaching position with the Australian Olympic team.

Fox, 27, won silver in the K-1 slalom competition at the 2012 London Olympics and bronze in the 2016 Rio Games.

In 2012, Fox became the second Australian Jewish athlete to ever win an Olympic medal.

Eli Dershwitz, Fencing, USA

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.

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.”

Jemima Montag, Racewalking, Australia

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.

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. 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.”

Ori Sasson, Judo, Israel

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.

Sasson spent the pandemic year delay competing on Israel’s version of The Masked Singer—his costume was a falafel sandwich—and finished third.

This year, the Kurdish Jewish Sasson—now 30 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

Sagi Muki, Judo, Israel

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.

Born and raised in Netanya, Israel, to a Yemeni Jewish family, he started focusing on judo when he was 8 years old.

Maru Teferi, Marathon, Israel

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—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.

Avi Schafer, Basketball, Japan

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.

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. “It is held in my home country and I want to show Japanese people what I can do.”

Ezra Frech, 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.

Maor Tiyouri, Marathon, Israel

Israel has another marathoner in Maor Tiyouri. Like Teferi, this is Tiyouri’s second Olympics. 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.

“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.

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.