Team Atlanta looks quite different this year, with more than 600 athletes participating in the host team in comparison to its usual traveling delegation of 100.
With that many athletes, there is a sport for everyone’s taste, from bowling to table tennis and from swimming to volleyball.
For Atlanta, a larger team means bringing together young athletes from all different parts of the city, said Todd Starr, a delegation head and volleyball coach for Team Atlanta. “Well, as a traveling delegation, we’re just a team going somewhere and playing in a set of games, but hosting, our whole community is involved, so it’s really awesome to see people from Cumming, and Intown, and East Cobb, and all these different communities coming together for the same common cause.”
Starr added that the Games also are attracting more people to the Marcus JCC. “It’s amazing to see some of the people that are walking back into the J again.” Some children are coming to the MJCCA for the first time. About 40 to 50 percent of the children on Team Atlanta this year were unaffiliated with the JCC and Maccabi before joining this year’s team, he said.
On the other hand, many players are returning, but not all to the same sport, said Brian Seitz, a 14U boys’ basketball coach and chief fundraiser for the games. “About four or five played with me last year at Orange County, Calif., games. And then one of my players played soccer last year, he’s playing basketball this year, one of them played flag football last year, he’s playing basketball this year.”
Although competition and winning games is obviously a big aspect of Maccabi, coaches just want their teams to play, have fun and make new friends, Seitz said. “I’ve got 10 players from seven different schools, including a player from Gainesville, Ga., on our team. And the team is fantastic, they’re great kids, they like each other, they compete. They want to get better and they’re extremely coachable. It’s all I can ask.”
As many of these teams have been practicing since winter, the first thing on their minds is just being able to go out there and play, Starr said. “I would say that they’re ready to play, not practice any more. They’re all excited about getting their uniforms and their gear, and just not having to hear about all the activities and being ready to do them already.”
Starr chuckled at the prospect of his team winning many games, saying “Well, there’s three levels, we have three volleyball teams, and I’m on the third team. So we’re excited to play, to participate. The highest-level team, the red team, is hopefully in medal contention.”
Since there were so many athletes this year, they were divided into three volleyball teams, which is unusual for a local delegation, Starr said. “Pretty much anybody who wanted to play in these games had an opportunity. Even if it wasn’t their first sport, they could play track, they could bowl, they could swim. There was an opportunity to do something if you were willing to commit.”
Besides its size, what makes this team stand out is its ability to bring people together beyond the competitions, much like this year’s theme, “Beyond Sports.”
“When it comes to the games, it’s sportsmanship and playing hard, but realizing that there’s a bigger picture,” Starr said. “Athletics is a big part, but social activities in the evening are just as big, and the community service is big.”
Starr emphasized the importance these games have on the athletes. “Just realizing that there’s so many other Jewish athletes all over the country that are just like you and that we can come together to do these things, it’s really cool.”
Hosting the games for the first time in 18 years is a big change for Team Atlanta, but being a host allows for the kids to gain a whole different perspective on the games. “It’s gonna be interesting. … It’s going to be a different experience hosting entirely,” Seitz said. “I hope they get to meet kids from other cities and other nations that are similar to them, that have a passion for fun, Judaism, sports, and I hope they have the opportunity to stay in touch with the kids that they’ve met through this Maccabi.”