Update: AJ will soon compete, you can stream it from NBC here! His competition will continue later tonight and tomorrow.
Originally posted on 2/8:
In just 4 years DDF Member “hgeek23” trained by himself with the help of some YouTube videos to be one of the top 30 Skeleton racers in the world!
AJ “The Hebrew Hammer” Edelman will represent Team Israel in the winter Olympics this month. He’s been a DDF member for 4 years and is hosting an “ask me anything” thread on DDF. He tackles lots of interesting topics there, including why he’s predicting a Korean Gold medal finish in his sport and how he’s avoided doping issues that plague his sport. NBC will televise Men’s Skeleton on February 14 and 15 between 5pm-12am EST.
AJ shared a preview of his jacket for DDF members:
And shared his helmet design and inspiration before it got a shout-out yesterday from Darren Rovell:
I recently sent him 10 questions to learn more about his background and connection to Israel, sports, and the mileage world.
- Where did you grow up and go to school?
I grew up in Brookline, Massachusetts, in a loving, zionistic, modern-orthodox home. I attended Maimonides school. I did my yeshiva study at Lev Hatorah in Ramat beit shemesh, and attended MIT (Mechanical engineering).
- What sports were you into playing or watching growing up?
I was into all sports, really, but what I excelled in was ice hockey. Wanting to play the whole 60 minutes, I chose the goalie position when I was extremely early on in the sport, and went from there.
- When did you first get involved in skeleton and what made you choose skeleton over other Olympic sports?
I thought Hashem had given me a gift of being athletic, and we should not waste the brachot we’re given in life. But athletic drive and skill is time-limited and it is something that if you don’t use, you lose. So in October 2013, my senior year of MIT, I was searching for a way to continue in sport but only if it made a huge impact, a meaningful one. After realizing that so few Jews reach elite sports level, I thought I wanted to change that, and the best way to do so was to represent Israel on the grandest sporting stage possible, the Olympics. Here’s where the Hashgacha Pratit comes in–as I made this decision one evening, the evening news was on TV and I saw a segment about the USA team trials in Bobsled. I hopped onto google and googled “Israeli bobsled team” and found the Bobsled/Skeleton federation of Israel. A few emails later I learned that skeleton was not only half the price per year of bobsled ($40K), but that it was a single-person sport, and finding 3 other Jews willing to throw careers, life-savings, and relationships away for 8 years was going to be as hard a task potentially as making the Games. So skeleton it was. I tried it out in March, 2014 in Lake Placid. The scouting report Israel received on me was terrible. Let’s just say they were told, and I quote “he will never be a serious contender in this sport.” I didn’t care–that only made me want to make the impossible possible. So March 14, 2014, my 23rd birthday, I wrote down on a piece of paper 2,884–the amount of days until 2022’s opening ceremonies.
At my first competition in November, 2014 I overheard someone say that I was so bad at sprinting (critical to our sport), that I would be gone within 2 years, and certainly in 4. I took out the paper I had written 2,884 on, crossed that number out, and wrote 1,442. It from that point become a head-on (pun-intended) journey to qualify for ’18.
- Why and how did you come to represent team Israel?
In addition to the reasons above, I’ve known for a long time, since 2006’s second Lebanon War, that Israel was my true home, even if I didn’t at the time live there. I’m extremely zionistic. I finally made Aliya on May 3rd, 2016. I’ll never forget that day.
- How did you get into DansDeals and frequent flyer miles?
I have not been able to afford this sport on my own. After quitting my job at Oracle in 2015/16 (I stopped receiving an income in Sept. 2015, quit officially in 2016), I spent all my savings on this journey, and was helped in part as well by my parents, friends, baalei tzedaka strangers, and sponsors, which helped me afford 25% of each season. However, as my own personal costs were so high, I needed a way to alleviate the costs of my travel. This was especially true as I would fly with 3 bags, each 70lb, and needed super-status to get the bags free. So I found the mileage world when I jumped into skeleton.
- Favorite award redemption that you’ve been able to take advantage of?
I helped get my parents tickets on Korean to come to the games, flying from Tel Aviv to Seoul in First class, using Chase points.
- Any luck finding mileage tickets to South Korea?
Personally I didn’t, though I wish I did. I received my first ever financial help from Israel, as they will help cover $1,200 of my ticket to Korea. The 3 bags put my flight well over this price tag. I searched for the award space, but couldn’t find it. But I’m headed to the Games–I certainly can’t feel bad about it.
- What do you hope to accomplish in the Olympics and what message would you like to spread?
This whole journey has been about trying to inspire Jews and Israelis to believe that they aren’t restricted in what they can do. I was told so many times “Jews don’t do sports.” I was told many times I would never make the games. Yet despite the fact that I’ve never had a true on-ice coach, and still don’t sprint well, Israel has qualified. And that’s only because of a mission FOR Israel that I felt it was my Tafkid–my life’s mission–to complete. It is my wish, more than anything else, that someone can hear of my journey and say “if he could do that–with no coach–with no organizational funding–being told every step of the way it was impossible–I can complete my own journey.” Furthermore I would like to start a foundation to get more funding to Jewish and Israeli kids in sports, to help provide coaching and support so that the kids can have the opportunity, and know it’s possible, to excel in sports. Jews in sports is not a joke–it’s a force to be reckoned with.
- Will you try to qualify for another olympic games after these?
It’s hard to imagine I could afford another 4 years. I think my role then would be to remain involved in Israeli and Jewish sports for as long as I may do so. I would love to go another cycle, but it seems unfair to my future family to mortgage their future on it. I achieved what I was looking for–to prove to our people that an impossible task was possible. Now it is time to help spread that message, and help others start their own journeys.
- Any other interesting anecdotes or stories to share?
Back in 2015 when I was trying to figure out how I could afford the massive baggage fees that came with travelling with 3 bags, each weighing 70lb, I decided that I would achieve American Airlines Executive Platinum status (the hard way–butt-in-seat miles in economy). In the off-season I would hop onto ITA Matrix and find the cheapest tickets from San Francisco to Asia or Europe that would allow for some out-of-the-way routings. A favorite of mine was SFO–>MIA–>DFW–>HKG, and back. I would nest the trips such that I could get off the plane in Asia and walk to another gate in the terminal and head on home. I remember this one time I went FRA–>LHR–>SIN and upon stepping off the plane in Singapore, boarded a return flight back to London. I did these kinds of trips enough times to get Executive Platinum status. Unfortunately I was never able to keep that status 🙂
Thanks for the insight AJ, and best of luck in Pyeongchang!