They played, they explored, they won! After 10 days of competition and adventure in Israel as part of the Youth Maccabi Games, Samantha Bressler, Noa Fisher and Victoria Varkonyi, all 15 years old, have returned to Great Neck with hardware in tow.
Varkonyi brought home the gold in soccer, while Bressler and Fisher both won silver for soccer and basketball respectively. The U.S. overall won first place among all the competing nations.
These Maccabi Games only allowed participation by athletes born in 2002–04, and was the first event of its kind. In addition to athletics, the event emphasized new friendships and connections. The participants were also encouraged to explore their Jewish roots in the Holy Land.
Athletes had their sports and their faith in common with fellow competitors, which led to the formation of friendships that transcended oceans and national borders.
Varkonyi found that she was able to communicate with the Hungarian athletes, since her father and grandparents immigrated to the United States from Hungary in 1956. She said the opportunity to connect with Jews from around the world was astounding.
“One day, I would be hanging out with the Hungarian team and singing songs in Hungarian, another day I would tour with the Italian athletes,” said the soccer gold medalist. “We were all from different countries, but we would sing songs in Hebrew together, which was so cool.”
After the competition, the athletes took part in a tour of Israel. Their travels took them to Haifa, Yafo, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. They saw the Sea of Galilee and the cities of Akko and Caesarea, and in Jerusalem they visited Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum and Memorial, the Mount Herzl National Cemetery and the Western Wall. Some athletes even celebrated their bar and bat mitzvah at the Wall.
Both Bressler and Varkonyi played soccer, and each managed to snag top-ranking medals for the United States. They were split into two teams representing the U.S. in soccer. While Varkonyi’s team brought home gold and Bressler’s team won the silver, the British women’s soccer team won the bronze. Despite not winning gold, Bressler and her American teammates were thrilled to share their fellow athletes’ victory.
“The second the final whistle blew, my entire team and I ran into the middle of the field, dancing and cheering like we’d won even though we hadn’t,” said Bressler. “It made me realize that even though my team lost, it didn’t matter because we played a soccer tournament in Israel and did really well. It’s a memory I’ll treasure forever.”
Varkonyi is grateful for her fellow athlete’s support and is thrilled to have been able to participate in the event.
“My soccer skills really improved, I connected with my Jewish heritage and I can’t wait to go back to Israel,” said Varkonyi.
Fisher’s basketball team fought bravely and won all but the final game, where they lost to an elite Israeli team. She said the competition was different than what she expected after playing in the U.S. all her life.
“The rules were very different in Israel than in the U.S.A., making it hard to adapt and play the way I usually play, but I got used to it,” explained Fisher. “This event will contribute toward my ongoing athletic career by motivating me, pushing me harder and making me keep training so I can return to Israel in 2021to play for the [official] Maccabi Games.”