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In Focus: Jewish Women in the Olympics

Current Olympians

Anya Davidovich, a sixteen-year old girl born in the USA, skated for Israel in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Her parents are Israeli, and most of her family lives in Israel. She is part of the first-ever pairs team to compete for Israel in the Olympics and the only female member of Team Israel. Her short program with Evgeny Krasnopolski earned the two a place in the finals, where they finished 15th.

Read JWA's exclusive interview with Anya and her mother as they prepared to travel to the Olympics.

Recent Olympians

At the 2012 Olympics in London:

  • The undisputed media star of the first week of the 2012 London Olympics was Alexandra “Aly” Raisman (1994 in Needham, MA), captain of the U.S. women’s gymnastics team. The talented team won the 2011 World Championships in Tokyo and entered London as the favorites. On July 31st, with her parents in the stands, Aly Raisman led the “Fabulous Five,” as the squad was called, to a decisive victory over the once-dominant Russian team and China, the 2008 gold medalists. A graduate of Needham High School in suburban Boston, Aly started her life as a gymnast at the age of two at a class with her mother, a former high school gymnast. “I always had a lot of energy so it was the perfect fit! I have always loved it ever since!" In the fall of 2011, she turned professional, giving up her NCAA eligibility.
  • Pole vaulter Jillian Schwartz (born in Evanston, IL, 1979) didn't begin pole vaulting until she entered Duke University in 1997. She finished 11th in the 2004 games and excelled at national competitions over the next five years. After winning the gold medal in the Maccabian Games in 2009, she became an Israeli citizen. She is competing for Israel at the London games. When asked why she picked the sport, she said, "There are so many factors involved it makes it a lot more fun than just flat-out running or jumping. And I guess there always is a little—I don't want to say fear, but it gets your adrenaline going to be that high in the air."
  • Julie Zetlin (1990, Silver Spring, MD) is the only American competing in rhythmic gymnastics at the 2012 Olympics. The daughter of a Hungarian national champion in the sport, Zetlin overcame a series of knee injuries to win a wild card berth on the U.S. team.

At the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver:

  • Laura Spector made her Olympic debut at the 2010 games in Vancouver, competing in the women's biathlon, a combination of cross-country skiing and rifle shooting. The youngest member of the team at 22, Spector placed 77th in the 7.5km sprint and 65th in the 15km individual. Laura Spector is a native of Lenox, MA; she began cross-country skiing in the eighth grade – which was also the first time she picked up a rifle. Spector did not expect to medal in her first Olympics and has her eyes set on the 2014 games in Sochi, Russia. She balanced training with undergraduate studies in biological sciences and Jewish studies at Dartmouth College, graduating in 2011. She currently blogs at fasterskier.com.

At the 2008 Olympics in Beijing:

  • One of the biggest stories of the 2008 Olympics was 41-year-old swimmer Dara Torres (born in Los Angeles, CA 1967). She competed in her first Olympics in 1984, while many of her competitors were the age her own toddler was during this Olympics. The oldest swimmer to compete in the Olympics, she won three silver medals in Beijing, the fifth Olympics of her career. Learn more about Dara at www.daratorres.com.
  • Fencer Sada Jacobson (born in Dunwoody, GA, 1983), one of the top women competitors in the fencing world, won a bronze medal in saber in Beijing, repeating her performance in this event in Athens, where the sport made its Olympic debut. Her guide to fencing is available on smithsonianmag.com
  • Marathoner Deena Kastor (born in Waltham, MA, 1973) was the bronze medalist at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, becoming only the second American woman ever to medal in the event. Learn more about Deena Kastor at www.deenakastor.com.

Bobbie Rosenfeld (1904–1969)

Rosenfeld Ready for a Race
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Rosenfeld Ready for a Race

As part of JWA's goal of documenting the lives and accomplishments of North American Jewish women, we have featured runner Bobbie Rosenfeld as a Woman of Valor. Gold and silver medallist Rosenfeld was one of Canada's most outstanding athletes. A celebrated track and field star, she excelled at virtually every sport from tennis to softball to ice hockey. With almost no formal coaching, Rosenfeld shattered national records and starred at the 1928 Olympics, the first year women were allowed to compete in track and field events. As a legendary talent and later as a sports columnist, she helped smash traditional barriers to women's participation in athletics.

Elsewhere on jwa.org:

Charlotte Epstein (1884–1938)

Charlotte Epstein
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Charlotte Epstein
Photo Credit: Slater, Robert
Great Jews in Sports, (New York, Jonathan David Publishers, Inc., 1983), p. 65.

Known as "Mother of Women's Swimming in America," Epstein founded the Women's Swimming Association and coached the Women's Olympic Swimming Team in the 1920s. Epstein was born in New York City where she became a court stenographer. In 1917, after she and a few other businesswomen expressed their desire to swim after work for exercise, Epstein formed the Women's Swimming Association to promote the health benefits of the sport. As manager and president of the WSA, Epstein guided many of its members to Olympic victory; she herself was the U.S. Women's Olympic Swimming Team's manager for the 1920, 1924, and 1928 games. Swimmers under her leadership won thirty national championships and set fifty-one world records. In 1935, Epstein chaired the swimming committee in charge of team selection at the second Maccabiah Games in Tel Aviv; the next year, she boycotted the Olympics in Berlin in protest over Nazi policies.

Elsewhere on jwa.org:

Lillian Copeland (1904–1964)

Copeland, Lillian - still image [media]
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This photo was taken during the 1930s, the decade in which all-round athlete Lillian Copeland both won an Olympic gold medal—in the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics—and was one of the many athletes to boycott the Olympic Games that were held in Berlin in 1936.

Institution: United States Library of Congress

Copeland was an Olympic champion in the discus throw. She was born in New York to Minnie Drasnin, a Polish immigrant. After her father died, she was raised by her mother and stepfather Abraham Copeland in Los Angeles. A four-time national champion in shot put, Copeland switched to the discus throw and set a new world record at the 1928 Olympic trials. She was the first woman to win a silver medal for the discus throw and later broke the Olympic and world records to win a gold medal at the 1932 Olympics. She played in the 1935 (Second) World Maccabiah games but boycotted the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. A law school graduate, Copeland joined the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department in 1936 and worked there until her retirement in 1960.

Elsewhere on jwa.org:

Syd Koff (1912–1999)

The United States participated in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin—the "Nazi Olympics"—sending the largest delegation of any country (312 athletes). Not every athlete who qualified for the team chose to go, however. Track and field athletes Milton Green, Norman Cahners, and Lillian Copeland chose not to go. "Syd" Koff, winner of four gold medals at the Maccabean games in 1932, was eligible to compete in the high jump and the broad jump yet decided not to go to Berlin. "Syd" (born Sybil Tabachnikoff), who as a girl had to sneak out of her parents' home to participate in track and field events, never won an Olympic medal.

Elsewhere on jwa.org:

Margaret Bergmann Lambert (1914– )

Hoping "to show what a Jew could do" and "to use [her] talent as a weapon against Nazi ideology," Margaret Lambert (nicknamed Gretel) wanted to compete in the 1936 Olympics for Germany. Though she tied the German high-jump record, she was not allowed on the team. Lambert emigrated to the United States in 1937. The stadium she was not allowed to enter as an athlete in 1936 was later named for her. In 2009 her record from 1936 was officially restored by the German track and field association, which also requested she be admitted to the German sports hall of fame. That same year, a movie about her life, Berlin 36, debuted in German theaters.

JewishSports.com
A gateway for news and information about Jews in sports

Maccabiah Games
Held in Israel every four years (the year after the Summer Olympic games) these games draw thousands of athletes from dozens of countries.

U.S. Olympic Team
The official site of the U.S. Olympic team.

Bobbie Rosenfeld
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Bobbie Rosenfeld

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "In Focus: Jewish Women in the Olympics." (Viewed on October 21, 2014) <http://jwa.org/discover/infocus/olympics>.

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