Wednesday 24 November 2016
Jeff Lutz, lead for the Israeli men’s curling team, still remembers the first time he donned Israeli colours on the ice with his teammates.
“We put on the uniform and looked at each other,” he said, “and you could tell there was a different feel. Because we were wearing a uniform that had never been worn before in international sport.”
The team was formed in 2014 after a successful wheelchair curling programme in Israel created more interest in the sport. It exemplifies curling’s constant worldwide spread and shows how people from curling-rich nations have helped develop it in new locations.
Skipped by Adam Freilich, 23, of Montreal, the team also has three Americans and one Russian— all of whom learned to curl abroad before importing the sport to Israel.
Curlers who bring the sport to new countries are part of the reason curling is the fastest growing winter sport in the world. “We are hopefully, in a way, assisting in that growth on the ground,” said Lutz. “I think it’s very special.”
Israel are competing in the B-Division this week in Scotland at the Le Gruyère AOP European Curling Championships 2016 where they hope to post a strong enough performance to challenge the eighth-placed finisher in the A-Division for a spot at the Ford World Men’s Curling Championship 2017 next April in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada (1-9 April).
“We knocked on the door last year,” said Lutz. “We saw the final shot coming at us that would have changed our perspective between A-Group and B-Group, so we know how close we got to that.”
With only one loss in the tournament so far — they’re currently tied with Czech Republic and Turkey for the top spot in Group A — they’re hoping they can improve on last year’s performance.
“The respect that we have, not only for the game but for the other athletes, is extreme,” said Freilich of the competition this year.
His dreams for the team are big. When discussing his curling heroes, and who he believes are the best teams in the world he quickly interjected, “Soon to be us!”
He proudly went on to describe their underdog status, showing a screenshot he saved on his phone of the fantasy curling vote for the finals of the Challenge de Curling de Gatineau in Canada earlier this year. Their opponents were favoured to win by 100 percent — Israel emerged the victors.
“We prove ourselves on the ice,” said Freilich.
It’s not just athletically that they let their identity be known, the team are also incredibly proud to introduce their understanding of Israel to the world through the competitions.
Alternate Gabriel Kepenich, 20, was born in Israel before moving to the States as a child. “Something we talked about the first year is coming out and representing Israel how you know Israel,” he said. “And making sure, if people have these ideas about it, to prove them wrong. So we come out and try to be strong ambassadors for Israel.”
Lutz agreed saying, “We’re playing the game here in the home nation of our sport and there’s a great opportunity for us to really demonstrate us landing on the world stage with a great performance here.”
Their emergence as contenders at the international level helps to create a more competitive pool of curlers around the globe.
“We’re on the map,” said Lutz, before adding, “we want to see a stronger sport worldwide, no matter what country it is.”
The top two finishers in the B-Division qualify for the Le Gruyère AOP European Curling Championships 2017 to be held in St Gallen, Switzerland (17-25 November). Also, the winner, plays the eighth ranked team in the A-Division, in a World Challenge Series, of three games, for the a place at the Ford World Men’s Curling Championships 2017 in Edmonton, Canada.
by Jolene Latimer, Sport Media Trainee journalist