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Jewish biathlete bringing passion for success to Vancouver

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Alexandra and Roman Zaretsky, a brother-sister pair originally from Belorus, will represent Israel in ice dancing in Vancouver. (Caroline Paré / Wikimedia Commons)

Alexandra and Roman Zaretsky, a brother-sister pair originally from Belorus, will represent Israel in ice dancing in Vancouver. (Caroline Paré / Wikimedia Commons)

Ben Agosto and partner Tanith Belbin return to Olympic competition in Vancouver after taking a silver medal in ice dancing at the 2006 Games. (Rich Moffitt / Creative Commons)

Ben Agosto and partner Tanith Belbin return to Olympic competition in Vancouver after taking a silver medal in ice dancing at the 2006 Games. (Rich Moffitt / Creative Commons)

Laura Spector discovered biathlon at 14, saying "It was my first experience with shooting a gun, but I loved combining two sports." (Nordic Focus)

Laura Spector discovered biathlon at 14, saying “It was my first experience with shooting a gun, but I loved combining two sports.” (Nordic Focus)

NEW YORK (JTA) — When the call from Germany arrived at the Spector family home in Lenox, Mass., last month, the voice on the other end betrayed little of the excitement one would expect from a newly minted Olympian.

Laura Spector, 22, had qualified for the U.S. Olympic biathlon team that will be competing this month in Vancouver.

"It was a very quiet voice, and it was just, ‘Daddy, Hi it’s Laura. I made the team,’" her father, Jesse, recalled. "It was just like that. It was that quiet, from this 5-foot, 100-pound kid. It was probably a very emotional three to five seconds because her voice sounded as though, ‘Dad, I didn’t make the team.’ But she was so composed. It had its own — I don’t know — moment is the only way I can put it."

Spector will be the youngest American woman vying in the biathlon, which combines cross-country skiing with target shooting. She is also one of five athletes measuring in at 5-feet tall — the shortest members of the 2010 U.S. Olympic team.

A student of genetics and Jewish studies at Dartmouth College, Spector is among a handful of Jewish Olympians headed to Vancouver for the 21st Winter Olympics.

Chicago native Ben Agosto, a 2006 Olympic silver medalist, is returning to compete in the ice-dancing pairs. Steve Mesler, a bobsledder from Buffalo, N.Y., is back for his third Olympics.

Israel will field a team of three in Vancouver: Mykhaylo Renzyhn, an alpine skier originally from Latvia, and the brother-sister duo Alexandra and Roman Zaretsky, born in Belarus, who compete in ice dancing.

Agosto, 28, who nearly missed the 2006 Olympics because his partner, the Canadian-born skater Tanith Belbin, was not yet a naturalized American citizen, said he was looking forward to soaking in the atmosphere of what will almost certainly be his last Olympics. A last-minute act of Congress granted Belbin expedited citizenship and she was able to represent the United States at the Games in Turin, Italy. 

"When that came through it was really a big surprise, but we really didn’t have that time to build up and kind of think of what to expect," Agosto told JTA by phone from his training rink in Pennsylvania. "We were just kind of thrown into it. There’s a lot that I don’t remember because it was such a whirlwind."

Spector grew up on a farm in Lenox where her family keeps llamas, alpacas, goats, horses, sheep, turkeys and chickens. She does her academic work during the spring and summer to free up the fall and winter for training and competition.

In high school she would wake before the sun to make tracks on her skis in a field behind the family home. She discovered biathlon at a camp for the sport in Lake Placid, N.Y., when she was 14. 

"It was my first experience with shooting a gun, but I loved combining two sports — cross-country skiing (in this case running because it was summer time) and marksmanship — to make each a little more challenging," Spector wrote in an e-mail. "Therefore, the greater the reward when you do well."

Her parents describe her as an unusually precocious and passionate kid who, from a young age, was adept at meeting challenges. 

"She’s not a frivolous kid," said Spector’s mother, Patty, herself a national champion in marathon canoe racing. "Even when she’s on the road and traveling, she reads books that most people her age would never go near or pick up. She just finished ‘The Gulag Archipelago.’ "

When she became a bat mitzvah at the Conservative Congregation Knesset Israel Synagogue in nearby Pittsfield, where her family has been members for 30 years, Spector conducted the entire Shabbat service in keeping with the synagogue’s tradition of lay-led services. Spector also attended the synagogue’s Hebrew school.

"For me, being Jewish is a lot about family and community, and the continuity of tradition," Spector said. "There is an entire congregation at home responsible for the shaping of my religious and cultural identity. There is comfort in knowing that these are people who have known me since I was born and have instilled in me thousands of years of tradition in ethical behavior."

Though generally considered a minor sport by Americans, biathlon is wildly popular in Europe and is said to be the continent’s top-rated televised winter sport. Patty Spector compares it to NASCAR racing in the United States.

The Spectors have watched their daughter perform in stadiums packed with thousands of fans in Europe, and they will be in Vancouver to cheer on Laura and the other American athletes.

"What Jewish mother would not go see their daughter?" Patty said.

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