Written By Logan Schiano and Griffin Epstein
Toby Barnett is used to getting wet.
“I love the sense of accomplishment after finishing a hard workout or a difficult race,” said Barnett, a Indiana University swim commit.
The Maccabi USA swimmer has been swimming competitively since he was 10 years old. But he had never swam in a body of water so salty that you have no choice but to float to the top. This unique experience came on Saturday when the delegation flooded Kalia Beach for a dip in the Dead Sea. The activity was part of Israel Connect, a week-long educational program for all Maccabi USA athletes.
“It was crazy,” said Barnett, of Rockville, Maryland. “Throwing mud on our bodies was awesome, too. I took so many photos – just trying to take it all in.”
The 21st Maccabiah marks Barnett’s first time in Israel. His coach Doug Markoff has made the trip three times before and said the Dead Sea is always a highlight for his aquatic lovers.
“Some of us have never been able to float and we can swim great,” said Markoff, who is coaching his fourth Maccabiah. “This is the only place on earth I and some of the kids float.”
At the Dead Sea and throughout Israel Connect, the Maccabi USA swim team’s cohesion is visually apparent. Everyday during Israel Connect the team coordinates its shirts with “Maccabi USA Swimming” plastered across the chest. Red one day. Blue another day. They are the only Maccabi USA team with this tradition.
“Our teams bond within days, we stand out wherever we go,” Markoff said. “It’s always incredibly transformational in some way, there’s always some awakening here.”
There may be no swimming lessons to take from the Dead Sea, but the experience has lasting impacts on the team.
“It’s really nice to be in the water and just relax, and not worry about doing a whole practice,” Tulane and Maccabi USA swimmer Samantha Krew said. “Being able to share the Dead Sea experience with my teammates is really meaningful.”
With fun, comes environmental concern
Despite all the excitement the Dead Sea provided on Saturday, its grandeur likely won’t last forever. The lake is shrinking at an average of three to five feet every year, and some experts fear it could be mostly dry by 2050.
Climate change is not the only culprit of the Dead Sea’s waning size. Routes travel guide Or Rosenbach is leading the Maccabiah athletes this week on their Israel Connect excursions. She says there are many issues with the Dead Sea’s survival. Extraction of minerals for commercial products and the use of a nearby dam to prevent freshwater of the Sea of Galilee from flowing into the Dead Sea are both plaguing the salt lake.
The Dead Sea dehydration has caused thousands of sinkholes to form throughout the region, including one that altered the route of Maccabi USA’s buses on the return home from the day’s trip.
“It costs millions to establish agriculture, especially in this area, and one sink hole can compromise everything,” Rosenbach said.
Rosenbach, of Tel Aviv, said she fears the shrinking of the lake will severely harm Israeli’s tour industry.
“It’s a very fragile situation,” Rosenbach said. “You can say that the Dead Sea provides no food or water, but it is a major point of tourism, which is a life-line for everyone living here.”
Krew said she hopes to spread awareness about the significance of the national treasure when she returns home from Israel.
“Coming to the Dead Sea is such a meaningful experience, so I think it’s important for us to learn more and understand the issues and the history surrounding it,” Krew said.
Griffin Epstein is a rising senior at Indiana University studying media and sports broadcasting. Follow him on Twitter (@epstein_griffin).