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My Maccabiah Success Story

Written by Marc Stern 

To this day, I’m what many would call a mental swimmer. I often over analyze every little thing about my race to make sure the next one is perfect. As one of my high school coaches would put it, if one road block is in my way towards my path to success, I tend to struggle to either try and run through the roadblock or give up entirely. This Maccabiah was filled with roadblocks. Throughout most of the meet, I let them get the best of me. 

As a 200 butterflyer, having to train takes a significant toll on your body during the season, and coming into the race, I have had some mental breakdowns before diving in. I think to myself that I didn’t prepare myself well enough or what happens if I don’t live up to others expectations as well as my own. This time was no different. Because I’ve only ever raced in a 25-yard pool rather than a typical Olympic size pool of 50 meters, I wasn’t sure what to expect. 

Israel Connect took a toll on my swimming performance. Being allergic to many of the meals that had been prepared during this week led to me losing over 10 pounds of muscle the week going into the meet, which affected my overall performance. My aerobic capacity decreased due to lack of practice times as well; however, there were some great and memorable stories that resulted. Some of them include going up the gondola at Masada, and my teammates circling around me as they screamed off-pitch 2000s songs to distract me from my debilitating fear of heights.

Going into the morning of prelims, many told me that this would be the most difficult and painful 200 butterfly I would ever swim. As someone who gets in their head really easily, this was not ideal. I decided to take the morning swim easy in a practice suit just to get a feel before finals. While the time that I swam wasn’t terrible, I knew there was still a lot more in me to go faster for the race itself.

In between sessions, I made sure to incorporate my usual routine. I took a nap, watched some TV, and made sure I got protein in my meal to recover, something that had been difficult for me to do at times during this experience given my dietary restrictions. My friends and teammates said heading into finals, it looked like I had seen a ghost. It wasn’t until one friend told me to look around and take in the experience for me to realize that I was wearing red white and blue on my swimming cap. Those thoughts were what helped me to finally calm myself down.

Before they called our names up to the block, I sat behind in the waiting room, joking and laughing with a few of the Israeli team members who I was about to race, as it’s the only way we’ve all learnt to disassociate from the intense pain we were about to experience.. The time had come where I stepped out and reached the blocks; I looked over to see my teammates, both open and juniors, cheering for me and trying to support me. This gave me the confidence to go out and win the competition and take home gold for our country. 

The first 135 meters of my race were absolutely stellar.  I was in 2/3rd place and vying for first. Then, I took in a big heave of water and fell back into fourth, but still not too far back to say that I was done for. However, the only thing that was hit harder than me hitting the wall on that last 50 was the wall that hit me when I came up to swim as I quickly did a technique that my mom has dubbed “the dying dolphin.” Rather than making a comeback, my opponents took a strong and commanding lead that I was unable to recover from. 

When I looked up at the clock, I saw that I got last in my finals heat. Dead. Last. Despite that, an even larger crowd had amassed around the USA Team, and the cheering was even louder than when I had jumped in. They were yelling my name to put up the humps, the call sign for my college mascot, the camels (which is something the team has adopted given that we are in Israel right now). I got out of the water to high fives and hugs all around, despite my lackluster performance. “You’ve got some serious chutzpah,” one teammate would tell me.

You see, maybe this wasn’t the Maccabiah success story you thought this was going to be. Filled with podiums and one of the 27 medals around my neck that my team won, mostly because this wasn’t the Maccabiah success story that I was expecting it to be. It became so much more than that. By being pushed to face my fears both in and out of the water by teammates who will be lifelong friends of mine, I gained so much more than a little trinket that would sit there and collect dust on my trophy stand. 

I’d like to give my greatest gratitude to Maccabi USA Management and donors for setting up this amazing experience and granting us the ability to do this, as well as my teammates for sticking by my side through everything. My coaches, Doug Markoff and Hailey Mitchell, thank you for taking a gamble on me that may not have paid off in the pool, but your coaching both in and out of it has given me the lessons needed to both succeed in my final year of college swimming and beyond. I never thought I would be saying this, but no gold medal around my neck could ever make me feel as blessed as I do right now.

Join us at the 2025 Maccabiah in Israel (July 1-22, 2025)
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