Sage Stelzer came home with a lot more than he had left.
There were many tangible spoils, none more prominent than the silver medal she helped the United States U18 soccer team win at the 21st Maccabi Games, but also a month of experiences that would said as much. The Wissahickon senior couldn’t have asked for more from the time she spent competing and exploring in Israel last month.
“It was definitely a life-changing experience,” Stelzer said. “I didn’t quite know what to expect going into it, tryout was the summer before and trying to figure out college, I wasn’t sure, but once all those things fell into place, I was there and I could just play, it was really fun.
“I was able to connect with so many people from different countries and to have that because of football and our religion was really cool.”
The Maccabi Games, held every four years in Israel, are the third largest sporting event in the world behind only the Olympics and the World Cup in terms of total number of competitors. The competition is open to Jewish athletes from all over the world and to all Israeli citizens, regardless of their religion, divided into four categories – Open, Junior, Masters and Paralympic.
After finishing her sophomore year at Wissahickon and a little apprehensive about potentially missing an entire month next summer, a key year in the college recruiting process, Stelzer wasn’t sure at first if she wanted to try out.
Her father, Josh, would not have it when he learned where the East Open Tests would be held.
“It was at (Upper Dublin) Spark Field, so it wasn’t far for me to go,” Stelzer said. “As soon as my dad saw it, he said ‘it’s 10 minutes away, there’s no reason not to try it.’ So I decided to go for it.”
Stelzer was the only player from the area to make the team, and she had teammates from Florida, Texas and California among other states. In the period between forming the team and leaving for Israel this summer, the team met in practice several times, but they wouldn’t really know what they had until they were together in person.
“Coming in, I didn’t know anybody or if I was going to be the best or not one of the best,” Stelzer said. “I had to come in, play my game and know it was going to be special forever. Whether my team was good or my team was terrible, it would be an unforgettable experience.”
Stelzer left for Israel on July 3 – his first time traveling alone – and arrived on July 4 with the U18 team that spent the first week in a pseudo-camp. She and her teammates barely had time to check into their first hotel room before heading off to a practice, and the week that followed saw two-a-day training sessions, 5 a.m. wake-up calls, and lots of travel. .
The reason for all that travel, and the early alarms, was that it wasn’t just about football. In addition to competing in the games, the athletes had the opportunity to participate in the Maccabi Games’ Israel Connect program that explored the host country.
“We went all over Israel, they took us all the way to the Dead Sea and we stayed all the way to Haifa, so we really saw the top down,” Stelzer said. “I really liked Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, both of which had different atmospheres. Tel Aviv is an upbeat city that plays music and has what they call the Shuk, which is a big outdoor market where you can go and go and haggle for prices, we don’t have anything like that here. You can be there for hours or even days, I could probably have gone back several times.
“When you go to Jerusalem, it’s the holiest city in the Jewish faith, you walk around to see the holy places and find nice vantage points and get a good view of the city. We visited the Western Wall, which is very sacred and you can leave messages or wishes that you hope will come true and so many people stop to pray there.”
Similar to the Olympics, the Maccabi Games have elaborate opening and closing ceremonies where each nation’s athletes are introduced and the games officially begin and end. United President Joe Biden attended the opening ceremonies, becoming the first sitting president to do so.
The ceremonies provided a first and last chance for athletes and competitors to interact with their compatriots from other nations and the celebrations also became a market of sorts. Stelzer said she was able to trade some of her apparel and equipment with athletes from Australia, Panama, the Netherlands and a few others, but also kept a small amount of her United States apparel, including her jersey. game from the final match.
Before each game, a captain of the American team exchanged a ceremonial banner with the captain of the opposing nation, a custom in international soccer. Once the games began, many of the events were held in a place called “The Hub”, which housed the football fields, tennis courts and several other competition venues, which also became a popular hangout for athletes between events.
“Before every game, we did a walk-off with our starting 11, we faced the parents and the fans and everyone cheered for each place, which was great,” Stelzer said. “After the games, we’d shake hands and talk, a lot of them asked to SnapChat us or add us on Instagram. It was nice to meet all these different people from all over the world.”
On the field, it wasn’t a smooth adjustment at first. The team’s first scrimmage against a local Israeli team did not go well as the players began to realize just because they might have been one of the best players on their respective teams, would not translate into instant success.
Plus, the American coaches had their own style of play preference, so the first week of practice was important for building continuity and each player making their own individual adjustments.
“Those first scrimmages were interesting, we needed time to understand how each other played,” Stelzer said. “Once we realized that and going into our first game against Australia, we knew we could win by doing this, this and this based on learning from each other.”
Stelzer, who has committed to the University of Pittsburgh, played mostly outside linebacker but filled in some as a wing midfielder and as one of the team’s fastest players, had a prominent role.
“My team and I, they knew with my speed, it would be beneficial because I could beat other players,” Stelzer said. “We would try to move the ball to one side and then play the switch to the long ball which opened up a gap for me to attack. Then we could have our runners from that far side come in so I could play balls.
Each game brought its own challenges, whether it was an overly physical opponent or another team that spent too much time taunting the officials, Stelzer said Team USA tried to keep the focus on itself. That approach worked as the United States team went undefeated in the doubleheader, including a win over host Israel, which fielded its U17 national team.
Unfortunately, a medical issue kept one of the team’s best players out in the final, a rematch with Israel that ended with the USA losing 1-0 to finish with the silver medal.
“It was a tough game,” Stelzer said. “The first half was a bit difficult, but we turned it around in the second half, we were more attacking and we turned the heat on them.
“Getting the medals we lined up next to Israel and even though we had just lost to them they were so friendly and all the other countries in the stands were cheering for us as the Maccabi theme was playing as they put our medals on. the necks. Taking a photo together holding our flag is something I will never forget.”
Wissahickon opens its season Monday, looking to repeat as SOL Liberty Division champions and make a deeper push into the District 1 playoffs. After stepping out of her comfort zone this summer, Stelzer hopes to bring some experience of her in Israel on her high school team, knowing she will be watched in big places this fall.
Stelzer brought more than he left last month and was more than worth the trip.
“I’m so glad I did it,” Stelzer said. “I will still connect with the people I met on my team and even from other countries. Meeting all these people, even other delegations and other sports, was just an incredible experience.”