Sports

Original Article Published On The Jewish News Syndicate

The Jewish state becomes the first nation in the world to qualify for the Olympics in baseball, joining host nation Japan.

With Team Israel’s 11-1 win over South Africa in the Olympic qualifiers in Parma, Italy, on Sunday, the startup nation became the baseball nation.

The Israel Baseball team will be the first team sport to represent Israel at the Olympic Games since 1976, when the Israel National Soccer team competed in the Montreal Summer Olympics. Israel will be one of six teams to play in the baseball competition at the Olympics.

“This is the ultimate dream come true,” said Peter Kurz, Israel Association of Baseball President and general manager of Team Israel. “It was almost too impossible to imagine, but with the astounding performances of a dedicated team that always believed in itself. Even when we were beaten on Saturday night by Czech Republic, it didn’t dampen anyone’s spirits because we knew we were capable of achieving this goal.”

Within minutes of their historic victory, the Israel Association of Baseball posted “Heading to the Olympics” in all caps on their Facebook page, and almost instantly received 236 likes and comments. The “Follow Team Israel” Facebook group, started in 2012 by a group of olim (new immigrants) to provide information on Israelis and Jewish athletes in the 2012 London Olympics, and which continues to raise awareness and enthusiasm for Israeli and Jewish athletes, similarly received 532 likes in response to its post: “Do you believe in miracles? They did it!”

Israel’s success last week, where it came in fourth place in the European Championships held in Germany (the top five teams advanced to the qualifiers) and in the Europe/Africa qualifiers, held this past Wednesday through Sunday in Parma and Bologna, Italy, earned them a spot in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Israel becomes the first nation in the world to qualify for the Olympics in baseball. Israel joins host nation Japan. Four more countries will ultimately qualify for the Olympics as baseball makes its return after being voted off the Olympic program after the Beijing 2008 Olympics. Two additional teams will qualify at the global Premier12 in November. One team from the Americas and one more from another qualifying tournament taking place later in the year will make it to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Israel began showing the world in 2017 that it needs to be taken seriously as a baseball nation. Israel won all three of its World Baseball Classic qualifiers in Brooklyn, N.Y., advanced to Pool A in South Korea in March 2017 and advanced again later that month to the second round in Tokyo. The team is currently qualified for the 2021 World Baseball Classic.

The Blue and White team, including some former Major League Baseball players who recently became Israeli citizens in order to play for Team Israel, faced three of the teams in the qualifiers it had lost to in Germany just last week, including Spain, Italy and the Netherlands (the European champions). Israel got off to an impressive 3-0 start in the qualifiers, which included an exciting 8-2 blowout Friday night against Italy. Their only loss came against the Czech Republic on Saturday night, where they lost 7-4.

In Sunday’s decisive game against South Africa, which allowed Israel to punch its card to the Olympics, Joey Wagman, who hadn’t given up a run or walk in his previous 15 innings pitched throughout the European Championships or Qualifiers, held the South Africans to six scoreless innings, allowing one run in the seventh.

Israel got on the board in the bizarre top of the second inning, which featured a sacrifice fly, three walks and two batters hit by pitches. Catcher Nick Rickles scored on a sacrifice fly by OF (outfielder) Simon Rosenbaum. With shortstop Ty Kelly on third, DH (designated hitter) Benjamin Wanger on second and third baseman Zach Penprase on first after being hit by a pitch, second baseman Mitch Glasser walked for another RBI. A single from OF (outfielder) Blake Gailen allowed Wanger and Penprase to score.

Israel was up 4-0.

In the top of the third, a double from Wanger brought Rickles home, and a sacrifice fly from Rosenbaum added another run by Kelly for a 6-0 lead.

South Africa scored one run in the bottom of the seventh inning. Israel answered back with four more runs in the top of the eighth—three coming from a home run by Team Israel’s best-known player, Danny Valencia, whose career includes stints with nine Major League teams. When Valencia’s homer brought the lead to 10 runs, the 10-run mercy rule was invoked, and Israel was permitted to break out the champagne one inning early once South Africa was unable to score in the bottom of the eighth inning.

Tel Aviv native, and current New York resident and music director at City Winery in New York City Shlomo Lipetz, now 40, came in to close the game. Lipetz, who has been affiliated with Israel baseball for more than 30 years, allowed no runs, and was on the mount when Israel won the right to move on to Tokyo.

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Original Article Published On The Jewish News Syndicate

With the loss against Spain in the last game of the European Championships only days ago still fresh, Israel came out determined to start strong against the team that left Israel in third place in Europe.

Joey Wagman pitched a complete game shut-out to help take down Spain in Team Israel’s first game of the World Baseball and Softball Confederation Olympics Qualifiers 3-0 in Bologna, Italy. Danny Valencia dominated the offense, batting in all three runs, including a first-inning two RBI home run.

With the loss against Spain in the last game of the European Championships only days ago still fresh, Israel came out determined to start strong against the team that left Israel in third place in Europe. And they did. In the top of the first inning, after outfielder Blake Gailen was walked, DH Valencia stepped up and crushed a homer deep into left field, immediately putting Israel ahead by two runs.

Wagman followed up on Israel’s strong offensive start by retiring Spain in order in the bottom of the first. He maintained the pressure on the Spaniards throughout the game, not giving them a foothold and allowing only three hits in the game.

In the top of the fifth inning, Zach Penprase singled to deep center field and advanced to second on a single from Mitch Glasser. Gailen singled to center field, loading the bases. A sacrifice fly to right field from Valencia added another RBI as Penprase scored Israel’s third run.

“I just pitched my game,” said Wagman in a post-game interview. “(Nick) Rickles called a great game behind home plate. We were on the same page all night. It’s a lot easier for me when I can trust him and trust the defense.”

Wagman also won the award for the pitcher with the best earned run average in the European Championships last week, after pitching 10.2 innings with an impressive zero ERA.

“Everything was great tonight,” said Valencia. “It was important to start well, and we did.” I helped the team with the RBIs, but the credit goes to Wagman, who was amazing on the mound.”

“This was a fantastic start,” says Peter Kurz, Team Israel general manager and president of the Israel Association of Baseball. “We have every intention of competing for every run over every inning of the rest of the games against Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Italy and South Africa. Our goal is no less than winning this tournament and representing the State of Israel in the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.”

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Original Article Published On the Jewish News Syndicate

The five top teams in the European Baseball Championships, plus South Africa, have advanced to the Olympic Qualifiers taking place in Parma and Bologna, Italy, through Sept. 22.

When the Miracle Mets won the World Series in 1969, baseball was virtually unknown in Israel. Israel had come out victorious in the Six-Day War only two years earlier, the first field was built at Kibbutz Gezer in 1979, and the Israel Association of Baseball (IAB) would be established less than a decade afterwards, in 1986.

Fifty years later, the New York Mets may need to share their “miracle” nickname with Israel’s National Baseball Team. Team Israel shocked the world in last week’s European Championships and now has its sights on the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, Japan.

Israel got off to an unexpected 4-0 start with victories over the Czech Republic, Sweden, Germany and Great Britain. Israel then lost on Sept. 11 to current European champions, the Netherlands.

Israel finished second in its pool with a record of 4-1 and advanced to the quarter finals, held last Friday through Sunday in Bonn, Germany.

On Sept. 13, Israel faced France, which Pool B with three wins and two losses. Team Israel handily beat France 8-2 in the quarter finals, securing a coveted place in the Olympic Games qualifiers for this week in Italy.

But over last weekend, Israel dropped two games to Italy and Spain, finishing fourth overall in the European Championships. This was the first time that Israel has even gotten that far.

A Team Israel pitcher in its victory against France in the European Championships. Photo by Margo Sugarman.
A Team Israel pitcher in its victory against France in the European Championships. Photo by Margo Sugarman.

“We faced some extremely strong teams this week,” says general manager and IAB president Peter Kurz. “The fact that we were able to beat these tough competitors is a great credit to all the players and the staff. We are ready for the next phase, and look forward to representing Israel in general and Israeli baseball in particular with pride.”

The five top teams in the European Championships, plus the already qualified South Africa, advanced to the Europe/Africa Olympic Qualifiers, which take in place in Parma and Bologna, Italy, through Sept. 22. Israel beat Spain on Wednesday in a 3-0 complete game by Joey Wagman. Israel now faces the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Italy and South Africa.

One Olympic spot will be awarded to the winner of the Europe-Africa qualifier tournament in Italy, which will feature the five European teams and South Africa, the winner of the 2019 African Baseball Championship. The second-place team in Italy will get another qualification opportunity for the Olympics in the final world qualifying event.

Continuing its storied run

The Miracle Israel Team continues its storied run, which started with the World Baseball Classic qualifiers in September 2016. Israel won all three of their games in Brooklyn, N.Y., beating Great Britain twice and Brazil once. It then advanced to Pool A, playing in South Korea in March 2017 against South Korea, Taiwan/Chinese Taipei and the Netherlands.

Israel then advanced to the second round (Pool E), playing Tokyo in March 2017. In that first game, Israel beat Cuba, then lost to the Netherlands and Japan. Israel’s storied World Baseball Classic run to the quarterfinals is chronicled in the recent documentary, “Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel.”

The team is currently qualified for the 2021 World Baseball Classic.

While the World Baseball Classic only requires that players be eligible for citizenship of the country they represent, for Olympic qualifying tournaments (and for the actual Olympics players themselves), they must be actual citizens of the country they represent. Several American Jewish players, including Valencia, Blake Gailen, Ty Kelly, Corey Baker, Jeremy Bleich and Jeremy Wolf, recently got Israeli citizenship. Most will continue to reside in America.

Despite Team Israel’s incredible success thus far, competing in the Olympics is still a distant dream. The winner of the qualifier tournament will get a bid to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The runner-up will have another opportunity to qualify for Tokyo at a future qualifying event.

In an interview from Germany with JNS following the team’s Sept. 13 victory, Kurz deconstructed the meaning of the team’s recent success for Israel, as well as the experience of playing in Europe.

Q: What does the team’s recent success mean for Israel, for the players and for baseball?

A: When any Israeli sports team excels in international tournaments, it excites the country. While baseball may not yet be a mainstream sport, when Team Israel starts grabbing headlines for exceeding so many expectations, people take notice.

This is a team that has worked hard to achieve their goals. We have players who have left their wives, their young children and their full-time jobs to come and represent Israel at the tournament. They are all committed to winning.

When our teams excel abroad, the first and most palpable result is that it raises the professional level of our players in Israel. We saw this phenomenon after the excellent sixth-place result of Team Israel in the World Baseball Classic in 2017. In the two years since, our youth players have become more dedicated and have understood the need to focus on increasing their skills. In July, our Under 18 national team competed in the European Championships Qualifiers for the first time and won the tournament. The success of our Senior National Team will give our players a lot to strive for. Our teenage players now have a goal: to be a member of the SNT in the coming years.

This can only be positive for Israeli baseball. The great results of this team are also being noticed outside of the immediate community. This type of exposure increases awareness of baseball in Israel and can attract new players who may not have thought about the sport. We are building two new fields in Beit Shemesh and in Ra’anana; this will only add to the excitement we are generating here in Europe now.”

Q: Can you describe the experience of playing games these past two weeks in Europe?

A: Most of Israel Baseball’s international competition takes place in Europe. Israel is a member of the Confederation of European Baseball, or CEB. It is a tight-knit baseball community, and a good atmosphere exists between the players once the games are over. In most of Europe, baseball is also still a niche sport, so the players share a common love of it and work to support one another.

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Original Article Published On The Jerusalem Post

Fichman now hopes to compete for Canada at the 2020 Olympics in Japan.

A few curious fans watched the female tennis player with the Canada T-shirt warming up an hour prior to her doubles match on Court 9 at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. She seems confident and clear in what she needs from Fritz, her strong male hitting partner. Another guy with a white sleeveless shirt, shorts and colorful shoes is holding a tennis racket and retrieving balls. Though no one knows who she is, the player is no stranger to the US Open.

Canadian-Israeli Sharon Fichman, 28, played in Flushing Meadows as a junior in 2006, where she reached the doubles finals with partner Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.  Fichman was ranked No. 5 in the junior circuit that year.  She played in the US Open qualifying tournament each year from 2009-2012, and she lost in the first round of the main draw in both 2013 and 2014. In 2014, she reached career-high rankings in singles (No. 77) and doubles (No. 48).  

Following a long period of absence from the tennis tour, Fichman was back in New York this year to compete in the US Open doubles tournament.  She and fellow Canadian Bianca Andreescu  (the eventual singles champion) lost in the first round to Americans Taylor Townsend and Whitney Osuigwe.

Fichman’s break from tennis and her dramatic return is a complex, moving love story which involves overcoming adversity and facing life’s challenges and opportunities with a partner.

Fichman spoke to The Jerusalem Post and explained that in March 2014 “there were a lot of things happening in my life… there was a big change in my coaching dynamic.”

Fichman described moving to Vancouver from Toronto to be with her coach, who relocated there for professional and personal reasons.  The relationship was unhealthy and unraveling.

“In hindsight, I probably should have changed the situation at the time, but unfortunately I didn’t. It got to the point where it led to overtraining, overplaying, poor scheduling, mental fatigue, injuries, surgeries.”

Fichman experienced multiple injuries and surgeries to her Achilles, ankle and knee.

“Looking back, I shouldn’t have been competing. It got to the point that I didn’t enjoy it anymore. I was in pain, mentally and physically. Every time I would come back, I would get injured again. I needed a break. I fell out of love [with tennis].”

Fichman decided to take a break from tennis in May 2016. She stayed in Vancouver, began building a life outside of tennis and entered into a serious relationship, which brought her back home to Toronto.

Once in Toronto, the relationship ended and Fichman was “focused on getting life together and finding a new passion outside of tennis.”

But ultimately she “fell back in love with tennis” and started taking coaching education courses, serving as a high performance coach and doing tennis commentary on television.

Fichman also fell back in love with a person.

“When I moved back to Toronto, Dylan [Moscovitch] got back in touch with me.

Fichman proceeded to describe the moving story of her relationship with Dylan Moscovitch, the accomplished 35-year-old retired pairs skater.

Moscovitch, who like Fichman is Jewish, competed with partner Kirsten Moore-Towers and was the 2013 Four Continents silver medalist, 2014 Olympic team event silver medalist, and 2011 Canadian national champion. He then competed with Liubov Ilyushechkina from 2014 to 2018 and together they won numerous prizes, including as the 2017 Four Continents bronze medalists, two-time bronze medalists on the Grand Prix series, and three-time Canadian national medalists (silver in 2015 and 2017, bronze in 2016).

Fichman’s relationship with Moscovitch started slowly.

“We met when I was 12, through his tennis-playing brother,’ she recounted. “We weren’t in each other’s lives… we sort of knew about each other and each other’s careers – we were both Jewish Canadian athletes.”

Fichman was born in Toronto to Jewish parents who moved from their native Romania to Israel before settling in Canada. She competed in the 17th Maccabiah Games in Israel at age 14 and won the gold medal in women’s singles. Moscovitch also had visited Israel on a Birthright program.

“We had each other on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Eventually he reached out, and asked me out a couple of times. Eventually I said yes. When we reconnected, the rest is history!”

They started dating in August 2017 and “hit the ground sprinting.”

Moscovitch’s life would soon change in unexpected ways.

In December 2017, he called Fichman just before she boarded a plane for a three-hour flight to Toronto. He was relaxing on a stretching mat after a gym workout.

“While we were on the phone together, a 200-pound mirrored door next to him unhinged and fell on him. He was knocked unconscious and suffered multiple facial lacerations, a cracked bone in his hand, multiple stitches in his right hand and was concussed for two months. What was horrible, is that I heard everything on the other end of the phone, not knowing whether or not he was dead or alive throughout the flight.”

Fichman described her flight as “the scariest three hours of my life.”

“Usually, Dylan closes his eyes while relaxing after his workouts. This time, since he was speaking on the phone, his eyes were open. Speaking with me saved him some serious head damage. If his eyes were closed, he wouldn’t have been able to react with his hand to help stop the majority of the impact.”

As a result of his injuries, Moscovitch retired from skating and was unable to participate in the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.

“He missed the opportunity to go to two Olympics, which was his goal – to go to two Olympics and medal.”

That missed opportunity is intimately connected to Fichman’s return to tennis.

“Dylan’s injury inspired me to come back because I wanted him to fulfill that dream. I decided after I heard [fellow Canadian tennis player] Gaby [Dabrowski]in a press conference mention something about the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. It inspired me to come back for Dylan.”

Fichman now hopes to compete for Canada at the 2020 Olympics in Japan.

“I had a bad break-up with tennis,” she noted. “I didn’t finish the sport in a way that left me feeling like I had a lot of love for it. This has given me an opportunity to play again and play on my terms and learn to love it.”

Fichman returned to tennis in doubles at the 2018 ITF event in Indian Harbour Beach and reached the quarterfinals with partner Jamie Loeb.

At this year’s US Open, when her practice session draws to a close, she sits in her chair next to hitting partner and the other guy who had been assisting on court. That man is Dylan Moscovitch.

Fichman opens up her tennis bag and takes out a hard case. She retrieves a shining diamond ring which she slips on to her finger. Fichman and Moscovitch got engaged in November 2018, and are planning their wedding in February 2021.

Moscovitch spends a great deal of time with Fichman on and off court, where he offers support and a great deal of insight and wisdom.

“Any athlete who competes later in life and takes a break has a certain perspective, which is a huge asset” said Moscovitch. “This lens helps her a lot on court, and to understand balance in life. I try to help with this philosophy.”

While the US Open may have ended early for Fichman, she and Moscovitch have Tokyo and married life to look forward to and their future is bright as the sun.

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