Israelis On Ice
Local athlete helps Israel assemble an Olympic curling team
They don’t consider themselves a 21st-century version of the Jamaican bobsledding team, nor does Jeff Lutz, 29, of Bloomfield Hills and his curling colleagues from far and wide have enough time in the day to think about who would play them in the movie version, or what that movie would even be called — Cool Brooms, perhaps?
Lutz is far too busy helping to field an Israeli Olympic curling team from his house. With a mid-May 2014 deadline, the goal is to find a team of curlers — four men and four women, either Israeli or with dual-citizenship — good enough to compete in the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea.
The odds are long. They need to find people who are willing to become Israeli citizens and — if young enough — perhaps serve in the military. Then they have to assess the mad skills to win a qualify-ing championship to become one of only 10 teams allowed to play for gold. But to Lutz, it’s worth the late-night emails to Israeli officials and curling clubs around North America.
“We’re starting from scratch,” said Lutz, who has been curling since high school. “We’re trying to build an international program with national elements within the span of a couple of months. I’m doing it remotely, at three in the morning, looking at emails, reaching out to people and coming up with ideas.”
But to understand the possibilities for this dream of his, one has to look at the intersecting point of the 30-year history of Israeli winter sports with the quirky world of a 500-year-old Scottish sport that combines ice, rocks (44-pound granite stones with handles), brooms, sliding shoes and throws good enough to land points in a target at the opposite end of the ice.
Israeli Winter Sports
In the 1990s in the Israeli border town of Metulla — a city with the slogan, “No more north of that” — then-Mayor Yosef Goldberg saw an influx of Soviet Jews and dreamed of building a complex dedicated to the Winter Olympics.
With Canadian backing, the Canada Center was built, along with the first real hockey-sized rink in the country, Lutz said. Goldberg wanted to promote ski jumping, bobsledding and speed skating. The Canadians also reached out to the World Curling Federation (WCF) and said they wanted to build up the sport, so they included brooms and rocks along with the other equipment.
When Goldberg died in 2002, curling basically died with him and, by 2007, Israel was disqualified as a WCF member due to inactivity.
Enter Simon Pack, current Israel Curling Federation (ICF) director of development. Armed with a doctorate in sports management, he was examining Israel’s Olympic sports structure and wondered why certain sports were missing, especially the winter sports.
“I somehow came across curling and discovered that it did actually exist at one time,” he said.
He discovered that Sharon Cohen, current ICF secretary general, was using the old equipment for wheelchair curling as a way to get disabled veterans back on the right road.
“Cohen had also been working already for a few years on the bureaucratic part of transferring the ICF to a different governing board, while at the same time trying to get people on the ice to curl in Metulla and Jerusalem at a recreation skating facility open for just three months a year,” he said. “My first goal was to get Israel reinstated to the WCF.”
After much persistence, they were reinstated in September 2013, with the help of WCF president Kate Caithness, a champion of Paralympic sports who noted Cohen’s work with soldiers.
Israel was back in the game. Now they just needed a team.
North American Link
With Olympic dreams in his head, Jeff Lutz became hooked on curling at 13 while watching the 1998 Sapporo Olympics on the CBC at ridiculous hours of the night.
“It appeared not to take a lot of physical ability and it looked like a fun sport,” he said. “I’ve never been the most physically gifted individual and it seemed like the easiest way to get into the Olympics.”
His first tournament was competing in the 2000 U.S. Juniors while he was a student at Bloomfield Hills Andover High School. A year later he tried out, but lost at the Olympic Trials.
When he entered Syracuse University in 2002, he decided to take a break from curling to study and become a typical student. But he met freshman Andrew McClune, a Lockerbie Scholar, (a program developed after SU lost 35 students on Pan AM 103). McClune was also Scotland’s junior championship curler, and Lutz was back in action.
Unfortunately, McClune died a few months later in an accident.
“A month before he died we played in a collegiate challenge against Cornell in November 2002. Andrew and I, who had experience, and two others with little experience played Cornell, considered the best curling team in the country, and beat them,” he said. “We planned on playing in the College Nationals in March, and I had all these grand dreams, but when Andrew passed away, it took the wind out of me. I’ve never completely gotten over it.
“We made a memorial service in January. His family came into town and his grandfather willed us on,” he said. “In this deep Scottish brogue, he told us, ‘You have to do it. Don’t lean on the past; think about what’s to come.’ And we did. We won our group, beating Cornell again 12-2 and came in second in the 2003 gold-medal match.”
They sent a silver medal to McClune’s grandfather.
Fast forward to September 2013. Now married, living in Bloomfield Hills and working as a marketing director at Troy-based gloStream, a company that provides software and services to independent medical practices, Lutz read about Pack’s success in getting Israel back into the WCF, and wrote him a letter of congratulations.
“Jeff wrote more of his biography, without asking me anything,” Pack said. “I responded by saying ‘Well, when are you going to become a dual citizen and start taking this on?’ And we took it from there.”
At the same time, Gabrielle Coleman, 38, of San Francisco, who serves on the board of directors of the U.S. Curling Association, was writing a congratulations letter of her own to Pack, with the same result.
Trying For Gold
With these players in place, the goal was set: field a team, shoot for the European Championships in May, qualify for the annual World Championships in 2015 and get to the Winter Olympics in 2018.
“We have to get to a World Championship before 2017,” he said. “Our odds are extremely minimal, but there’s always a chance.
“Some countries pay millions of dollars just for curling teams alone. They have national organizations. The players have no jobs; they just practice curling,” he said. “But if we field a team and we’re going to a championship, in theory we have an equal chance as any of those other competitors. If you just get a team one year that’s really hot and gelling at the right time, you can find yourself in the World Championship pretty quickly.”
Coleman, whose team just won a U.S. regional qualifier and will compete with 10 teams at the U.S. Nationals, said, “A good recruiting and training program will be key.”
Pack began recruiting in the U.S., starting in Chicago Jan. 29, then visited Windsor, Ontario, on Super Bowl weekend before going to New York and Boston. Fifteen curlers showed up for the tryouts in Windsor.
“Along with the turnout of 20 curlers in Chicago, we are well on our way to find the necessary talent to craft together the national teams,” Lutz said. “We need to find people, bring them together, change or add their citizenship. We have people at the World Federation, the Canadian Curling Association and the U.S. Curling Association”
Coleman said Pack’s recruiting visit “will help not only to identify the current top Jewish curlers, but also to encourage more Jews to try curling. I think the traditional culture of curling is a good fit for Israelis and Jews around the world because it places a lot of value on community, volunteerism and education.”
If and when the teams are fielded, team members will train on their own and agree to meet at certain times to train together, Lutz said.
And one of his team members might be his brother, Brad, a 27-year-old attorney from Detroit. “Jeff and I currently compete together in a weekly league over at a curling club in Windsor,” he said.
Growing up with two brothers (they have a younger brother, David, 24, in Ann Arbor), Brad said they were always competing for something.
“As I got older, my competitive nature continued regardless of whether it was pick-up football, golf or poker,” he said. “Curling may have started due to its novelty, but it wasn’t long before I was hooked.”
Brad has competed in the Olympic Regional Qualifiers and in two College Curling Nationals as a Michigan State University student.
If picked for the team, he will get dual citizenship and, because of his age, will serve in the Israeli Army Reserves.
“While the thought of fighting in any war is incredible to fathom, I am weighing this factor against the amazing opportunity of competing for Israel,” he said.
Once a team is fielded, they will all travel to Israel together to become dual-citizens, Lutz said. “We’re going to do a huge event with the WCF, and we want to get people jazzed. At the 2010 Olympics, there were 200,000 Israeli viewers watching late night curling on Sport 5, the national TV sports network.”
Some, but not all, expenses will be covered by the ICF “because they are recognized as an Olympic sport and it falls under the greater Israel Olympic banner,” he said.
“In Israel, you get partnered with an Olympic summer sport, and we are partnered with pistol shooting. The World Curling Federation also provides funds because we are a developmental country, and the Federation wants to promote the sport.”
As far as funding, Pack said the ICF receives “very little to no governmental funding, and we have no dedicated curling-specific facility. These are detrimental factors locally but we are doing all we can to overcome that.
“The people that have come out of the woodwork like Jeff and Gabrielle are diamonds in the rough and people that we welcome into our curling family.”
Sure the odds are long, but to most, it’s not the winning that counts, it’s the getting there.
This year, the 2014 Israeli team consists of male figure skater Alexei Bychenko, pairs skaters Evgeni Krasnopolski and Andrea Davidovich, speed skater Vladislav Bykanov and skier Virgile Vandeput.
If the stars align and the rock’s aim is true, you might see Jeff and Brad Lutz, Gabrielle Coleman and five other Jewish curlers working their sliding shoes on PyeongChang’s Olympic ice in 2018.
For more information, contact Simon Pack at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Harry Kirsbaum | Contributing Writer