At the Alberta Cup Championship in February, the Israelis took on Armenians, Brazilians and a Canadian team that competed in the 2002 Olympics. Zeff and Frank finished second in one heat, and won the other.As Aaron Zeff bumped and skidded along the icy, frozen track at 90 mph, breaking his back in the process, a thought jolted through his head: “This is the sport for me.”
“If you talk to a Jewish mother, she’ll say I broke my back. But if you talk to a physician, they’ll say I had a compression fracture of my T3 vertebrae, it’ll heal in a couple of months and I’ll be a little shorter, but it’s just as good,” says Zeff, 34, of last year’s accident.
“Now I’m one-sixteenth of an inch shorter. But I don’t qualify as a short, balding Jewish guy just yet.”
He does qualify, however, as the pilot and co-founder of the Israeli bobsled team – yes, you read that right, the Israeli bobsled team. And don’t even think about bringing up the Jamaican bobsled team, mon. The Israeli bobsledders have heard that one about a million times, and they’ve had enough. They aren’t growing dreads, and they don’t intend to be loveable losers.
“No, we want to divorce ourselves from that. They didn’t do that well; they went to the Olympics and crashed. We’re interested in being really competitive. And I think we are,” says Dr. John Frank, 41, the team’s brakeman and the former tight end on the San Francisco 49ers glory teams. “We’re aiming for a legacy. Something respectable so Israel will [always] have a bobsled team in the Olympics. And we should.”
The San Francisco pair’s fascination with bobsledding began like anyone else’s – by watching the Olympics on TV. They were simply enthralled by the spectacle of a gaggle of space-suited sledders hustling into a futuristic-looking fiberglass vehicle and roaring down a track in which the amount of time it takes to snap your fingers separates first from the back of the pack.
And, in case you’re wondering, they’re not the first Jews to venture into bobsledding territory. French bobsledder Philippe de Rothschild was one of a number of Jews to boycott the 1936 Olympics.
Their dream began to take shape into a tangible reality a few years back, when Zeff persuaded his buddy, Frank, to divert a few hours from a Canadian ski trip to visit a bobsled track in Calgary. They met New Zealand-born coach Ross Dominikovich, who took one look at the pair and felt he had a couple of naturals. Zeff, who used to fly F-4 Phantom jets for the United States Air Force, possessed the reflexes and mindset to be a dominant bobsled pilot. And Frank, a burly former football star, was still blessed with the brute strength necessary to push the sled from a standstill and serve as its brakeman.
“We looked at each other and started laughing,” recalls Frank, now a plastic surgeon. But they didn’t dismiss the idea. The two began plotting out necessary time and money commitments, and Zeff trekked to Israel to try and convince the nation’s Olympic establishment to let a pair of Californians represent the country in the sport. As Frank puts it, his partner had to “beg, borrow, and steal” in order to obtain Israel’s blessing.
Working with the Jewish Community Federation of the Greater East Bay, both tackled mounds of paperwork to become dual Israeli-American citizens, and have visited Israel numerous times. By winter of last year, Israel gave Zeff and Frank the green light, and the pair were in bobsled driver’s school in Calgary.
For Zeff, grabbing the controls was not unlike his prior gig in the cockpit. He never crashed an F-4 Phantom, however. “You’ve been on roller coasters or on the centrifuge at the carnival when you’re thrown up against the wall. If you can imagine, try driving something where you’re thrown up against the wall and rattled, going through different lighting in and out of tunnels through the snow and wind,” explains the real estate investor and parking lot owner.
“It’s not unlike flying a jet at low altitude. You have almost no peripheral vision and you have to always be one turn ahead. If you try to make a correction on the turn you’re on, it’s too late.” In always staying one step ahead, piloting a bobsled is “like playing pool – but you’re going 90 miles per hour, it’s freezing and snowing, and the guy behind you is digging his spikes into your back.”
Yes, it’s just like playing pool. Pool, meanwhile, is not an Olympic sport, and bobsledding is getting to be more and more of a selective one. Largely due to the celebrity achieved by the Jamaican bobsled squad, a number of countries in which the sight of snow would be front-page news have unfurled bobsled teams.
Bobsledding’s governing body has responded by making the Olympics a more exclusive club than ever before. In order to compete in 2006, teams are now required to have been competing for at least four years. And while 45 teams traveled to Salt Lake City for the 2002 Olympics, only 28 will be invited to Turin, Italy, in 2006, with up to two teams per country. Even though the top five bobsled nations will easily grab the first 10 slots, Zeff and Frank are confident they can crack the top 28. Frank refers to the task as “eminently doable.”
When they’re not training with Dominikovich in Calgary for several weeks at a time, both Zeff and Frank work themselves into game shape at local gyms. Frank, for his part, has bulked back up to his football weight of 225 pounds, after slimming down to “doctor weight” of around 200 or so pounds after he retired in 1989. The question is, how well do the pair need to do for Israel to consent to send them? Israel’s Olympic governing board has been vague and noncommittal on the issue, using terms such as “contending” and “competitive” as qualifiers.
“We’re coming into the sport ranked 41st, so it’s unrealistic that we could vie for gold, silver or bronze. But we could put together a squad that’ll be in the top 50 percent of the sport by the Olympics,” says Zeff, who stands a stocky but athletic 5-foot-10 and weighs around 215 pounds. In other words, nudging the Americans, Germans or Italians off the medal platform is a little much to ask. Racing well, finishing respectably, and establishing a tradition for the future is not.
In fact, at the Alberta Cup Championship in February, the Israelis took on Armenians, Brazilians and a Canadian team that competed in the 2002 Olympics. Zeff and Frank finished second in one heat, and won the other.
And, in a time when most organizations are downsizing, the two-man Israeli bobsled team has already lined up an alternate, Canadian-born David Greaves, and are looking to add another. Think you could fit the bill? Zeff and Frank are looking for a man who: Weighs at least 225 pounds, can sprint 30 meters in 4.1 seconds or less, can bench press 300 pounds and squat 450 pounds, and is an Israeli citizen or willing to become one. If you qualify, feel free to drop Zeff a line at www.israelibobsled.com.
On travels across North America and Israel, Zeff’s head has already been turned by football player-types, and more than a few have expressed interest in training to be the next generation of Israeli bobsledders. But in addition to time, it will take money to get Israel into the Olympics and keep it there. Zeff estimates $500,000 will be needed over the next five years, but he covered one-fifth of that with a June fund-raiser.
Next up for Zeff and Frank: More training, and upgrading from their rented sled to one of their own. “We still need a brand-new bobsled to be competitive,” says Frank. “It’ll cost about $40,000. It’s like buying a Lexus.”
The Star of David emblazoned on the nose of the Israeli bobsled ensures that a good portion of the questions directed at its drivers are political. What do bobsledders think about the “road map”? What do bobsledders think about the settlements? The occupation?
For Frank, those questions miss the point. He isn’t racing for settlers or left-wingers or Likud or Labor. He’s racing for Israel. “This is something that is just positive for everyone. It’s gratifying to contribute without alienating anybody,” he says.
“The only thing that’s exploding here is the sled coming out of the starting blocks. The only thing that’s breaking are records.”