Jillian Schwartz’s return to the Olympic Games Friday as a member of the Israeli team after competing for the United States in 2004 is a highlight of an unlikely journey.
The 1997 alumna focused on being a professional athlete when she graduated from Duke University in 2001 knowing the Olympics was a part of that career. When she finished fourth in the 2008 U.S. trials barely missing a trip to Beijing, it was time to reflect.
“I took five months off (after the 2008 trials) but I knew that wasn’t the end,” Schwartz said. “I still wanted to be out there competing.” As she returned to pole vaulting, she got an invitation that changed the course of her life.
“In 2009 I got an invitation to the Maccabiah Games and to compete in their nationals as a guest. Israel wanted me to come,” Schwartz said. Held every four years in Israel, the sports festival is an Olympic style competition for Jewish athletes from around the world. She won the pole vault as a member of the American team.
Schwartz grew up in a Jewish home in Lake Forest going to services and celebrating holidays balancing studies, sports and religion. “We went to services every Friday when I was younger,” she said. “It got harder when I was in high school because of sports.” She celebrated her bat mitzvah at .
That first trip to Israel in 2009 made a major difference in her life. She competed in the games in July and by December she was a citizen of both the United States and Israel.
“I felt incredibly welcome,” Schwartz said. “It felt so comfortable. “It’s the same cultural background I knew as a kid. We do the exact same things,” she added describing the affinity of a lifestyle half way around the world.
Maccabiah Success Leads to Citizenship
After her success at the Maccabiah Games, Israeli athletic officials approached her about taking dual citizenship and participating as an Israeli in world competition. She thought about it and that December she returned to gain citizenship. Under Israeli law any Jew can become a citizen.
“It was such a cool feeling,” she said when she became an Israeli citizen. “I didn’t know I would feel that way. I don’t speak Hebrew that well but I can still read which is cool,” she added referring to her B’nai Torah schooling.
Training Base Remains in Arkansas
Schwartz’s training regimen did not change. Her coach was still Earl Bell at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro and that was her base. She has housing in Tel Aviv when she needs it as well. When she vaults she sees competitors, not countries.
“I’m competing against the same people,” Schwartz said. “I see the same faces. This is an individual sport.”
How well she would have done trying to make the American team as she did in 2004 and barely missed in 2008 is an unknown. Israel does not have trials like the United States. An athlete must meet a specific standard set by track’s world governing body to qualify.
“I trained for the Olympics,” Schwartz said alluding to the fact she is trying to peak in August not June. “I didn’t have to go through the trials.” Will that make a difference? “I feel I have a few high jumps left in me for the Olympic Games.”
Schwartz is one of four North Shore athletes heading to the Olympics. Patch will feature Matt Grevers of Lake Forest Thursday.