Facing Olympic hurdles, Israeli Bradley Chalupski still harbors skeleton hopes

Skeleton competitor Bradley Chalupski, representing Israel, starts down the track at the men's world championships in Lake Placid, N.Y., Feb. 24, 2012. (Ken Childs)

Skeleton competitor Bradley Chalupski, representing Israel, starts down the track at the men’s world championships in Lake Placid, N.Y., Feb. 24, 2012. (Ken Childs)

The last time I caught up with Bradley Chalupski, he was in Lake Placid, N.Y., racing down the bobsled track at the 2012 world championship competition in skeleton – a little-known sport in which athletes race head-first down icy tracks on sleds the size of cookie sheets at speeds of up to 80 mph.

A native of New Jersey, Chalupski was racing for Team Israel (of which he was the only member) and planning to make aliyah that spring as part of his bid to represent Israel in the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.

Chalupski followed through on his plan, and for the last year and a half he has been living in Jerusalem, learning Hebrew and training for the Olympics.

He faces two main hurdles. One, he needs to qualify. Under an Olympics quota system for warm-weather countries, Chalupski has a better shot at obtaining one of the 30 Olympic skeleton spots racing for Israel than for the United States. But athletes still must be ranked among the top 60 skeleton racers worldwide – something Chalupski has achieved in only one of his three seasons, 2011-’12, when he took spot No. 60. Last season, he fell to No. 74.

The other hurdle is the Olympic Committee of Israel, which so far has shown no interest in Chalupski or his sport. Despite numerous attempts, the committee has refused even to meet with him, Chalupski says.

“It’s been really, really frustrating,” Chalupski, 29, told me this week by phone from New Jersey, where he’s in town visiting his mother. “I feel like I have sacrificed a lot to do my part as a Jewish man to represent Israel worldwide.”

When I spoke to the Israeli Olympics Committee for a story I wrote about Chalupski in March 2012, secretary general Efraim Zinger told me that to represent Israel at the Olympics athletes must meet several criteria, including competing in a sport that exists in Israel.

Chalupski says he has been trying to establish a skeleton program in Israel, but it’s difficult to recruit athletes without some kind of commitment from the Israeli Olympic Committee that the athletes will get a shot, at least, at going to the Games. Not having a skeleton track in Israel is no barrier to entry, Chalupski maintains: There are only a handful of tracks worldwide (the United States has two), and in the last Winter Games a woman from Britain, which has no track, took home the gold.

Last winter, Chalupski traveled from Israel to participate in the racing circuit, making a go of it on a shoestring budget, borrowed sleds and donated track time. Nevertheless, he said his season had to be truncated because he ran out of money.

Chalupski is planning to compete again this winter, starting with races in November in Austria, Germany, Park City and Whistler, B.C., and eventually moving on to the Olympic qualifiers before the Winter Games in Sochi next February.

“We set out to qualify Israel for an Olympic sledding competition and we want to achieve that,” Chalupski said. “If Israel does not want to allow us to compete there, for whatever reason, that’s Israel’s call.”

Despite his frustrations with the leadership of the Israeli Olympic Committee, Chalupski says he has no regrets about immigrating to Israel. Raised as a secular Jew with a Catholic father and a Jewish mother, Chalupski says learning about Judaism and living in Israel has been the thrill of his life.

“This experience has just been beautiful from start to finish,” Chalupski said. “People always ask me if this has soured me on Israel. No! Why would I let five people ruin my view of an entire country?”

He’s planning to get married in Israel next September, with a second wedding in Lake Placid. His fiancée is preparing to take the Israeli bar exam. The couple just signed another yearlong lease on their apartment in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Talpiot.

“We’re setting up shop there; that’s where we want to live,” he said. “The only thing I miss about America is my friends and family and Dunkin’ Donuts.”

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