Diversity, unity inspire Tucson coach at Pan American Maccabi Games

Coach Martin Reichgott, far left, with the U.S. swim team at the 13th Pan American Maccabi Games in Chile (Courtesy Martin Reichgott)

While the Tucson Jewish Community Center continues to build momentum and rosters for this summer’s Maccabi Games for Jewish teen athletes in Columbus, Ohio, another member of the community was able to experience Maccabi on an international scale.

Martin Reichgott spent Dec. 26-Jan.5 in Santiago, Chile, as a coach for the U.S. delegation to the 13th Pan American Maccabi Games. Reichgott, head coach of the Tucson J Stingrays Swim Team from 2012 to 2015, heard about the opportunity through the Jewish Community Center Association. He was accepted as part of a staff to lead a 36-person team ranging in age from 14 to 76.

“I felt incredibly fortunate to have been chosen for the experience. Not only was it a diverse group from the U.S., but I knew that the athletes would learn a tremendous amount about what it means to be Jewish throughout the world,” says Reichgott, who’d previously been a coach at the 1997 Maccabi Games in Seattle as part of the Oregon delegation.

The U.S. delegation to the Pan American games had over 400 athletes and coaches in 22 sports. There were more than 3,000 athletes in Santiago from 15 countries, including Israel, Cuba and South Africa. The U.S. swim team included athletes from 13 different states.

Aside from the four-day swim meet, Reichgott says the opening ceremonies, which included an Olympic-style procession into the soccer stadium, made a lasting impression. Guest speakers included Chilean President Michelle Bachelet and, via video, former Israeli President Shimon Peres.

All athletes participated in tzedakah (charity) projects during the games. The swim team boxed food for hungry Chileans, while other athletes helped to give eye exams and distribute reading glasses. Shabbat services were observed outdoors, looking east toward the mountains, and Israel.

Members of the delegation had some time to explore Santiago, a city of six million inhabitants that most Americans know very little about. The swim team traveled to the city’s market district and took a bus tour up the Andes Mountains. The swim meet was conducted in Spanish, says Reichgott, which forced the U.S. team to pay extra attention. Only one team member spoke Spanish.

Most important, athletes learned that Judaism comes in many forms.

“The biggest experiences for all involved were the opportunities to sit and talk with Jews from diverse backgrounds. To stand with thousands of people singing Hatikvah really solidifies what it means to be united in identity,” Reichgott says.

The Tucson J is seeking Jewish athletes ages 13-16 for the 2016 JCC Maccabi Games in Columbus, Ohio, July 24-29, to compete in basketball, soccer, swimming, tennis and other sports.

Along with attending practices, athletes with the Tucson delegation will be expected to participate in team get-togethers and Tucson J sponsored special events and community service opportunities. For more information, contact Oren Riback at oriback@tucsonjcc.org or 299-3000, ext. 175.