In the shadow of Eagle’s Nest, Bradley Chalupski races for Israel.
He races in front of German children waving Israeli flags in a place where you can still see the mansion that was built as a 50th birthday present for Adolf Hitler. He races wearing a Star of David on his helmet in a place where, in his own words, the Jewish people’s “destruction was sought.”
Chalupski races on Königssee skeleton track. He pushes his sled—“You are not running next to the sled. You are pushing it,” he likes to tell novices to the sport—and then he jumps onto the metal slab, going down the ice headfirst, his toes an inch off the ground, reaching speeds of up to 85 miles per hour.
He does this with no brakes.
On the way down, Chalupski is thinking two turns ahead as he navigates the 15 curves of track. For example, when he goes into turn six, he is already getting ready for the best angle to take on turn eight, because if he doesn’t do this, he could slam up against the side. He could crash. He could flip. He could, in the worst-case scenario, die.
All of this is happening in the shadow of Eagle’s Nest, which is visible from the course from its perch on a sub-peak of the Hoher Göll mountain.
This is where Bradley Chalupski, a self-proclaimed Jersey boy who doesn’t speak a word of Hebrew, races for Israeli Skeleton Team. This is where he places 33rd out of 34 racers at the World Championships.
But there are more important things than where Chalupski placed during a race in February of 2011. More important questions, too.
Why does an Israeli skeleton team exist? How did this happen?
That part of the story begins with a football champion and a top gun pilot.
In 2002, Aaron Zeff, a former member of the United States Air Force, attended the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. Whatever he saw there at the bobsled races, at the mouth of the chute as the metal missiles came flying out, sparked something in him. He made a call to John Frank, who had won two Super Bowls as a tight end with the San Francisco 49ers, and told his friend that they should do this. They should race for Israel.
“John, you need to listen to this,” Zeff told Frank over the sound of a sled zooming past. “That was a bobsled, and I think we need to try this.”
And with that simple declaration the Israeli Bobsled Team was born. Getting permission from the Israeli National Olympic Committee to represent the Jewish state internationally may have been the easy part. Zeff and Frank now faced an even bigger challenge: getting the sled down the track.
This is not the easy story of the underdog rising to the top with a little hard work and an inspirational speech from a coach. This is not a Disney movie, some strange sequel to “Cool Runnings,” perhaps with the title, “Hebrewin’ a Miracle.”
This is the story of Zeff, Frank, and a third team member, David Greaves, figuring how to race a bobsled as they went—bumps, bruises and crashes included.
Take the first time Greaves ever went down the track. Zeff, who normally drove the sled, suffered a compression fracture in his spine, leaving him unable to compete. Enter Greaves, a complete and total novice.
“I’d seen it on TV. How difficult can it be to hop in? On TV, you rarely see crashes. You’re not seeing the 50th ranked guy in the world. Those guys are all pros. I just figured it would be an amazing roller coaster ride and that I would be helping out and I’d participate in any way they wanted me to participate,” Greaves said.
So there he was, standing at the top of the track with Frank, a man he had never met before. A stranger who, as the new driver of the sled, would literally have Greaves’ well-being in his hands.
“John turns to me, and he says, ‘Gravey, say the Sh’ma,” Greaves said, referencing the most intimate of Jewish prayers.
So Greaves did. The first lines, at least. And then they were off, down the track.
And then they were upside down.
“We crashed out of turn seven, going about 110 kilometers. You’re told not to leave the slide. You feel the heat. You’re upside down. You’ve got a 450-pound bobsled pinning you down so we’re sliding until we stop,” Greaves said. “I was holding on for the dear life. It’s the most violent crash—the sound.”
But Greaves, Frank, and Zeff kept at it. The team made aliyah to Israel, and by February of 2003, they could make it down the track 10 times in a row without wiping out. From there, they began to compete at higher and higher levels of competition, qualifying for the Word Championships and narrowly missing qualifying for the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino.
This experience, Greaves says, changed his life, taking him out of technology and sales and moving him towards his current career as the Director of Development and Marketing for the Jewish Foundation of Manitoba and the Secretary-General of the Israeli Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation, the evolved name for the organization he, Zeff, and Frank founded.
“The first time I heard the track announcers say, ‘The track is clear for Israel 1,’ I get chills just telling you that now. It’s an awesome feeling to be standing anywhere in the world with the Star of David on your jacket or the Star of David on your helmet or on your bobsled,” Greaves said.
There was something special to being so identifiably Jewish that Greaves had never felt before. One look at the uniform and everyone knew he and his teammates were Israelis, a responsibility Greaves welcomed wholeheartedly.
“We began to tell a different story about Israel, which was the underlying theme of everything we did. We realized how much of an honor it was to be in the headlines as Israel, but not have them be talking about occupation or terrorism or all the things people associate with Israel,” he said.
Greaves too raced in the shadow of Eagle’s Nest, a moment he says he will always remember.
“If we can give anyone even a fraction of that experience, it’s almost like me living it over again.”
And that’s why he works hard to find Jewish athletes to recruit to the team, ones like Bradley Chalupski.
“I want people to feel this amazing connection to Israel even before they do it. But that isn’t really the qualification for a good athlete. We want young Jewish athletes that have a drive to be as good as they can be and be at the top of their game,” Greaves said. “Brad was connected to his Jewish history and he has a Jewish girlfriend, but really what we liked with him was his dedication to being as good as he can be.”
How good can Chalupski be? Greaves says Olympics. But when you talk to Chalupski, you get the feeling he wants more than to just be at the Winter Games. Much more.
Perhaps that comes from the mentality that goes into racing skeleton. You do not do a sport that requires you to lead with your head while you plummet down an icy slope for the simple joy of getting some exercise. You do it for the thrill, the rush, the drive you feel to win.
“It’s an experience too big for any individual Jew actually living it to comprehend. That’s the best way I could put it,” Chalupski says over the phone. He is currently in Calgary, preparing for next skeleton race in the World Cup, but the year-old race at Königssee is still fresh in his mind when asked about it.
Last December, Chalupski earned Israel’s first ever medal in skeleton when he placed fifth at the America’s Cup race in Lake Placid. But now he is competing in the World Cup, and the competition level is fierce. Last week in the race at the course at Whistler, Chalupski placed last, finishing 25th.
“We’ve already shown I’m not the dumbest schmuck out there,” Chalupski says about his medal at Lake Placid. “It’s just now we’re moving up to the Olympic level competitors in the sport.”
Chalupski came to skeleton in a similar way to how Zeff came to bobsledding. He saw it—his exposure came from TV in his University of Maryland college dorm room—and he said to himself, “How the heck do you get involved with that?”
From there, it took a Google search to lead him to the United States Olympic Development program in Park City, Utah.
The first time he went down the track, he remembers telling the program’s officials, “You’re going to send me home on the team, or you’re going to send me home in a body bag.”
“You’re very nervous the first time. You’d be crazy not to be. Anyone who tells you they weren’t is lying to you,” Chalupski says. “When you get off the first time, you get to the bottom, I’m convinced it is literally impossible for you to be indifferent. People either love it, and are like, “Take me back to the top right now,” or they got off and say, ‘You people are f****** crazy. I’m never doing this again.’”
Chalupski never went home in that figurative body bag. He joined the U.S. Olympic Development program, cutting classes at Seton Hall Law School to attend training sessions at Lake Placid whenever he could. Still, he found himself low on the depth chart, behind several U.S. racers. In his third and final year of law school, Chalupski decided to make one last shot at qualifying for the Olympic Trials before he graduated and began his legal career.
“I was competing for a shot at the U.S. team trials. I raced in that race, and I was the first guy out. I was going to quit the sport. I had actually sold some of my equipment. I decided it was time to move on with my life,” Chalupski said.
But then Greaves and IBSF CEO Andy Teig came along and offered Chalupski a fresh start. How would he, an athlete with a Catholic father and a Jewish mother, like to compete for Israel?
There were two caveats to the proposal, though.
“[Andy] made two things very clear,” Chalupski says. “This was not the easy way to the Olympics, and I shouldn’t be there if I didn’t want to seriously support Israel.”
Chalupski spent 10 weeks thinking about it, asking both his Jewish and non-Jewish friends for advice.
“It was very important to me to not be a sell out. People switch flags, as we call it, all the time to compete, but it wasn’t something I wanted to do.”
But the more Chalupski talked about it with his Jewish friends, the clearer it became what he should do.
“They all, without exemption, looked at me and said, ‘You’re Jewish. Israel is your home, whether or come to it now or you never come to it or you come to it the day you’re put on this Earth. You can represent Israel as a Jewish person and there’s never anything wrong with that.’”
His girlfriend took that sentiment to the next level, telling him that it wasn’t a matter of what he could or couldn’t do, but rather a matter what he had to do.
“You have to do it. You are the only person in the world right now who is capable of representing the Jewish people in this way and you’re being asked to do so,” she told him. “So you have to say yes.”
And that is how Chalupski decided to make change in his life path, much like Greaves did years ago. The suits he would be wearing for the next year would not have pinstripes or buttons. They would be skintight and very inappropriate for the boardroom. As Chalupski puts it, he had just committed to putting his legal career on hold for a year of sleeping in other people’s houses.
Something happened to Chalupski as he stayed in those different Jewish homes, these host families a necessity as the Israeli Bobsled and Skeleton Federation tried to squeeze every drop out of its tiny budget by forgoing hotels. The racer began to connect with a community he had never really tried to be apart of before.
“The amazing thing about being Jewish and traveling anywhere in the world,” Greaves says, “is if you ever need a place for Shabbat, if you ever need help, if you ever need to connect with something or someone, you can be certain you have a home wherever you are. That’s unique. Nobody else has that experience but us.”
Chalupski says he plans to learn Hebrew this off-season. He lights Shabbos candles now, albeit while “eating a pepperoni pizza and listening to Frank Sinatra on his iPhone.” He went on Birthright to Israel.
But when did it really hit him that something had changed for him when it came to Judaism? When it came to a certain kind of Jewish pride?
Perhaps an exact moment truly doesn’t exist, but when Chalupski finally broke through and won that medal at Lake Placid, he made a realization about how much what he was doing meant to him.
On the way back up to the top of the track, one of the Canadian competitors looked at him and said, “Now you won a medal. You can be on the American team.” Here it was: the chance to finally represent the red, white, and blue, something Chalupski had been trying to do for years. All those runs at Lake Placid. All those hours training with the Development Program. What an opportunity.
But it’s the strangest thing. Chalupski didn’t want it anymore.
“I just looked at him and said, ‘No, I don’t want to.” I’m so proud of what I’m doing. I’m an American, don’t get me wrong. But I’m so proud of what we’re doing,” Chalupski said. “I knew in Whistler when I felt myself feeling pressure to do better because I was representing Jewish people everywhere.”
When he was catching air out of turn 12 in his training runs last week, Chalupski didn’t think about his safety. Instead, he thought to himself, “I don’t want to embarrass Israel and the Jewish people by flying out of this curve. I want to look like we belong here.“
“That’s the power of what that means to me. It’s in my head. It means that much to me,” he says.
This is not a Disney movie, but what if it was? Could you find a better underdog in casting? Bradley Chalupski started in the sport of skeleton ten years later in life than most of his competitors. He competes for a team with no budget, a team that represents a people that do not know it exists.
Chalupski goes to international competitions without a coach, watching other racers go down the track by himself to try to glean any sort of information he can. He is 5’4”, and because of this, he had to teach himself how to run with longer strides this past summer, spending hours walking on a treadmill with a dumbbell by his side to simulate pushing a sled.
And now here it comes: the turning point of the story. This is the point where we watch the montage of when things start falling into place. Chalupski is getting better. He dropped a second-and-a-half off his training run in Calgary this week. He finally mastered the course's tricky turn eight that had done him in so many times before.
He’s already above the world rankings cutoff for the Olympics with over a year to go, and he plans to add some of the 15 pounds of muscle he lost relearning his stride this off-season.
But most of all, Bradley Chalupski plans to race. He plans to race in the shadow of Eagle’s Nest and in Calgary and in Whistler. He plans to push that sled and run with long, long strides. There he goes with Star of David on his helmet! And when he goes, he goes for Jews he doesn’t know and those who don’t know him. He goes for those who may not even want him to race for them, or perhaps even worse, don’t care either way. But Chalupski does it anyway, filled with a sense of pride. He does it through turn six, seven, eight. Through 11, 12, 13. Sweeping towards the finish with no brakes. Faster! Faster! Faster!
Try to keep up.
Photo credit for first picture: David McColm. For more information about how you can get involved in supporting the IBSF, check out their website here. You can also follow Bradley Chalupski (@BradChalupski), David Greaves (@Melechdaveed), and the Israeli Skeleton Team (@TeamIsraelSkele) on Twitter.