Written by Noah Friedman
When Marlene Bruten was growing up in Mexico, she knew she always wanted to represent the United States in athletic competition. From the 4am wakeup times to get ready for swim practice to school and back again, Bruten never forgot her Judaism.
Bruten is an alumnus of two Maccabiahs and one Olympics, swimming for Mexico in the 1988 Seoul Games at the age of 18. Her prowess and hard work with determination has been passed down a generation.
For the first time, she has two children competing in the Maccabiah. Her younger daughter, Nicole Chezes, 21, competed in futsal and just took home the silver medal. She was also named the tournament MVP.
Meanwhile, Nicole’s younger brother, Jonathan, is 14 years old and eligible to compete in the Maccabiah, where he played on the U-16 soccer team. Jonathan’s team also came up just short of a gold medal.
Bruten’s family history is traced back to her maternal side of Poland and her paternal side of Russia. Most of her family perished in the Holocaust, but the ones who escaped via ship settled in the residential suburb of Mexico City called Interlomas, where her parents met and raised their daughter.
“Being Jewish (in Mexico) is very easy,” Bruten said. “We are so many. My parents were very focused in bringing the values because they knew I was going to be traveling with non-Jewish people.”
Nicole competed for the United States in the 2019 Pan America Maccabi Games in Bruten’s hometown of Mexico City, winning gold in soccer. Bruten just so happened to be there as well, coaching the United States swimming team, where she was also a banner carrier in the opening ceremony.
Jonathan on the other hand was watching from the family’s hometown of Missouri City, Texas (near Houston), cheering on his sister and aspiring to get to the international level of competition.
“Watching (Nicole) play, I couldn’t imagine the experience,” Jonathan said. “I wished I saw myself playing there, and now I am (here at the Maccabiah).”
Jonathan has worked on his craft and is now starring at Ridge Point High School in Missouri City, where he plays central attacking midfielder. He also plays at the Rise Soccer Club.
Unfortunately, Nicole tore her ACL after the Pan Am Games and began a lengthy rehab process. When soccer tryouts for the 21st Maccabiah came arouns, Bruten said Nicole was hesitant.
“She said, ‘I don’t want to go, I don’t feel like my knee is ready,’” Bruten said. “Time passes by and she got a tryout in Philadelphia and made the futsal team (instead).”
“And I said, ‘Hey Nicole, I thought you were not ready.’ And she answered me, ‘Ma, my plan is to go and I know you cannot afford to pay for three, so I want to let my brother go.’”
Without the contributions of people around their community, none of this would be possible. Jonathan raised almost $3,000 in a GoFundMe so that he could come to Israel.
“I’m super grateful and thankful for that,” Jonathan said. “Times are hard with money currently because of COVID, so people donating really helped out a lot.”
Back home in the States, Nicole works with the NWSL’s Houston Dash as a coach in its academy, developing the next batch of talent. In order for her to make this trip to Israel, she picked up two additional jobs; selling candy bars door to door and taking bartending graveyard shifts.
And this was all so that Marlene and Jonathan could go to Israel on budget.
“That’s Nicole; when she wants to do something, she will make it,” Bruten said. “That’s her personality of strong will.”
The family has had a lot to reflect on with their time in the Holy Land. The children can only thank their strong-willed single mother for all that she has done to get them to this point in their careers.
“It just makes me feel so proud of my family, how much we have achieved and all our goals are coming together,” Nicole said. “To see how she has done so much for us, my brother, my (older) sister (Michelle), and me, is just making me want to go for more.”
“(My mom) told us that she made the Olympics as an 18-year-old competing against people that were obviously older than her,” Jonathan said. “So I compared that to me being 14 and going up against 15 and 16-year-olds.”
Bruten, who has been an Accommodations Manager for Maccabi USA during the 21st Maccabiah, knows that she did a good job in raising her two youngest children that just so happen to be athletes.
“Being with them here in Israel, is being part of the history of my kids,” Bruten said. “Where they come from, where we belong.”
Noah Friedman is a Los Angeles native and graduated from Arizona State University. Follow him on Twitter (@NoahFriedman_), Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/noahfriedmanpage) and https://maccabiusa.com/maccabimedia/