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Jillian Schwartz, Donald Sanford: Born in the USA, competing for Israel at the Olympics

Israeli President Shimon Peres, seated second from right, with his country's Olympic delegation for the London Games, July 9, 2012.  (Noam Moskowitz/flash90)

Israeli President Shimon Peres, seated second from right, with his country’s Olympic delegation for the London Games, July 9, 2012. (Noam Moskowitz/flash90)

TEL AVIV (JTA) — Growing up outside of Chicago, Jillian Schwartz never expected that one day she would be an Israeli citizen. Now the hardest part of her immigrant experience is leaving Tel Aviv — with her roughly 17-feet-long Olympic equipment.

“Trying to get out of here with poles is very difficult,” said Schwartz, a pole vaulter and one of two Americans on Israel’s Olympic team for this month’s Summer Games in London. “The first time I flew out of here it was 4 in the morning. They were going to bring me to the airport 3 1/2 hours early, and I barely made it onto the plane" because of the special luggage requirements of the poles.

Schwartz, 32, a U.S. Olympian in 2004 who became an Israeli citizen two years ago, will be joined on the Israeli squad by fellow American-turned-Israeli Donald Sanford, a runner in the 400 meters.

Both athletes took unconventional routes to Israeli citizenship.

Schwartz’s family was involved in its local synagogue during her childhood, but her Jewish involvement reached a new height when she moved to Jonesboro, Ark., to train with coach Earl Bell. Schwartz connected with the small Jewish community near her training center, and made competing in the Israel-hosted 2009 Maccabiah Games a priority. She won a gold medal that summer in the quadrennial event known as the Jewish Olympics.

Schwartz returned to Israel in December and “definitely felt a connection.” Soon afterward she applied for citizenship.

“I came during Chanukah and it was cool because it was like a holiday at home — the same traditions, the same prayers,” she said.

Schwartz now splits time between Germany — where she competes — Arkansas and Israel, which she visits four or five times a year.

Sanford’s connection to Israel began at Arizona State University, where he met a fellow student named Danielle Dekel, the kibbutznik who would become his wife. Raised in an athletic family — his brother played college football and his sister professional basketball in Europe — he was pursuing a track career at the university.

Sanford married Dekel in 2008 and now lives half the year on her family’s kibbutz, Ein Shemer, on Israel’s northern coast, spending the rest of the year in Arizona. While he was not raised Jewish, he said he has become close with his wife’s family and kibbutz community, spending evenings and Shabbats with them.

Sanford, 25, says the Israelis have “welcomed him with open arms” at competitions here. He calls his invitation to Israel’s Olympic delegation “a dream come true.”

“The people and the sense of family and pride [in Israel] made me feel more comfortable,” Sanford said. “It’s been more difficult not seeing my mom and brothers and sister.”

Efraim Zinger, head of Israel’s Olympic delegation, says he views Schwartz and Sanford like any other members of the team, not as Americans.

“They’re Israelis with an Israeli passport,” he said. “It’s fun to be with them. They’re professional sportsmen. That they trained in America and lived in America doesn’t matter.”

Schwartz and Sanford both chose their sports partly out of an aversion to running long distances.

Sanford used to run the 1500 meters (approximately one mile), but in high school he “got sick and tired” of the distance and switched to the 400 meters.

Schwartz recalls that in high school, she tried “everything that didn’t take running.” She eventually wound up dedicating herself to pole vaulting and competed in the event while at Duke University before making the U.S. Olympics team. Schwartz says she appreciates the mix of physical fitness and technical skill that the sport demands.

Sanford, competing in his first Olympics, says he doesn’t “want to put a limit” on himself with concrete expectations. Schwartz in her second Olympics hopes to make the final round and surpass 4.60 meters (about 15 feet, 1 inch), which is below her personal best of 4.72 (about 15 feet, 5 inches).

Schwartz says she is unfazed competing against her former American teammates.

“You’re really competing against yourself, how high you can go,” she said. “It’s a lot of the same people I’ve been competing against for nine years or 10.”

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