Jerusalem, Israel – Aug 10, 2017 – Top riders from around the world gathered in Israel July 4-18 for the 20th Annual World Maccabiah Games, a world-recognized event created to build Jewish pride through international sport. For only the second year in a row show jumping and dressage teams joined over 10,000 athletes participating in 43 different sports. Team USA featured eight equestrian athletes as part of their 1,100 participants with four-member teams assembled for both the dressage and jumping competition.
The athletes from the United States are part of Maccabi USA(MUSA), a federally-recognized non-profit organization that enriches and nurtures Jewish heritage through athletic, cultural and educational programs. MUSA’s main goal is to provide Jewish athletes across the world with the opportunity to share their customs and build their pride in a competitive, athletic setting.
The Open Equestrian Dressage Team for the United States consisted of by Hope Cooper, E. Rebecca Cord, Leah Johnson Marks and Anna Sylvan-Jaffe, while Andrea Glazer, Haley Schaufeld, Sydney Shulman and Cloe Hymowitz completed the jumping team. All athletes participating in the events were required to be of a Jewish heritage and had gone through a detailed selection process. It is a unique team competition where riders compete unfamiliar horses in the FEI Challenge Medium or Advanced tests.
“The team was selected by Jessica Rattner, Oded Shimoni and Sandra Cohen, my co-chair for the Games,” explained chairwoman and competitor Anna Sylvan-Jaffe. “Each rider submitted an application that included their willingness to be open and adventurous in Israel along with video on different horses.”
Sylvan-Jaffe had her first Maccabiah Games experience in Berlin, Germany, where she was originally supposed to go in assistance for her trainer Jane Karol but then took her place as rider when Karol was no longer able to participate due to NAJYRC commitments.
“I had a really positive experience in Germany so I stayed involved with Sandra Cohen for Israel,” said Sylvan-Jaffe.
Overall, the dressage team worked together to accomplish a strong silver-medal finish behind Team Israel, while also enjoying the experience together.
“I loved traveling and going all over Israel with the equestrian girls,” said Leah Johnson Marks. “Thanks to them I have many absolutely hilarious memories to cherish!”
Read below to see what else Anna Sylvan-Jaffe and Leah Johnson Marks had to say about their unique competition experience:
What made the Maccabiah Games unique compared to other competitions you’ve attended?
AJ: Riding a horse that belongs to someone who was just a few days before a stranger and in that period finding a way for the owner to trust you and for the horse to trust you. I rode Yael Mitzafon’s Rubijo (Rubi). Yael was national champion this year at Third Level with over 70 percent and in a way gave up her chance to compete so I could ride Rubi. Getting to know her and her family made the experience really special.
LM: For me the most unique part of the Maccabiah Games was knowing that I was one of 10,000 athletes from all corners of the world and everyone in the competition shared two things; we were passionate about our sport and that we were Jewish. When all of the countries came together for the opening ceremony I was amazed by the diversity, the sense of community, and the feeling of pride I shared with my teammates walking across the stage. Even during the equestrian competition I could still feel a certain amount of camaraderie between the riders, it was a wonderful feeling.
How did you prepare to ride an unfamiliar horse for the competition?
AJ: Growing up I worked for and rode jumpers with Kevin Babington and then young horses with Jean Paul Murat. I feel comfortable adapting to a new horse and like the challenge of thinking about how to bring out its strengths.
Yael has had Rubi since he was 2-years-old and has done all the training herself so she knows him incredibly well. The first day I was in Israel, Yael rode Rubi for me and then every day thereafter worked with me on a headset to focus on details; how much flexion to have into a movement so he would know what was coming, how much jump to have in the canter to ensure the next movement would flow, just where to place my weight to compensate for where he is weaker in his body or just developing in his training. I tried my best to listen to her.
Since the competition was on grass, she took me to a soccer field to feel him on that footing and then to a road where he was spooky to feel him in that situation. One evening we rode him late so I could feel him under lights. Because of the heat, the competition ran until after midnight pretty much every day. I am pretty sure this was the first time for all of the dressage horses to go in a stadium under lights. Most of them handled it beautifully.
LM: I didn’t do anything too unusual to prepare for the ride on an unfamiliar horse. I’ve trained and ridden many different horses over my career and I felt like that was some of the best preparation I could’ve had in order to be successful riding a pool horse in the Games. I studied the tests as much as possible and practiced some of the pieces and movements on my own horses at home.
What was one of the most memorable moments of the games?
AJ: I have three! I loved the opening ceremony, walking into the stadium and feeling the energy of the more than 1,000 U.S. athletes mixed with the 69 countries who had walked in before us — the energy of the stadium waiting for the Israeli team, and the energy and chanting of my team mates around me. I also really appreciated the instant camaraderie, on the team and with Rubi’s owner. Having a completely clean test the first day made me feel like I was able to do a good job for the horse and Yael.
Finally, I have a software start-up. To this point we have had over a hundred meetings in the U.S. and in all of them I have been the most technical female in the room. In the meeting with a possible partner in Tel Aviv the entire technical team was female.
LM: The opening and closing ceremony were both a huge highlight for me! It was incredible to celebrate the different countries and all the athletes that represented the Games. There was so much pride and team spirit among all the athletes. It was quite inspiring.
How did your tests go?
AJ: We were second on the first day with 67 percent behind Michael Wiesel on his beautifully trained Grand Prix horse Santos. The second day, we tried to make Rubi just a little more expressive and powerful, and I lost some of my feel for the timing. He was so light on my aids that all our half passes were steeper than they should have been at Grand Prix so we finished 5th. We qualified for the individual final, and overall finished 4th with the three days of scores combined.
LM: Overall I felt that my competition with Romer was a success! The first day was a bit rocky as we figured each other out in the show arena and worked through some early show nerves. The second day and third day was much improved for us. We were able to ride the tests with better relaxation and throughness. Romer is a bit downhill in his conformation so I had to focus on keeping his engagement throughout the tests but with his willingness we were able to put in solid rides. During the individual final we lost some key points in our walk work and that kept us from medaling but we ended up in 4th place so I went home feeling successful.
What did you learn about the entire experience?
AJ: Like always, to be flexible. One of our riders, Rebecca Cord, spent her first week and a half working hard to bring the very best out of the horse we had leased, only to have her [horse] come up lame the first day of the team competition and to have to change horses that evening. She did a brilliant job adapting and staying positive.
As with the Warendorf Stallion, Peking, I rode in Berlin, Rubi has been very much trained to have an aid to know what is coming next into a movement, out of the corner. This is something I have incorporated less into my own riding but hope to add in the future.
LM: I think one of the biggest things I learned being in the Maccabiah was to be open and flexible to anything and to try new things — even attempting to eat pickled herring for breakfast which is not something I will be adding to my daily meals! During my time touring in Israel I feel that I gained a good bit of knowledge in many different areas, from learning more about the history of the ancient city of Jerusalem to developing more understanding about current politics. It was a very enlightening experience!
How did it feel to represent team USA in Israel?
AJ: I loved representing Team USA but more felt responsible for everyone else’s experience representing the US for the first time internationally. That part was hard.
LM: It was an incredible honor to have had the opportunity to ride for Team USA.
Knowing that I had the red, white and blue on truly inspired me every time I rode down centerline. It was also a privilege to have ridden on a team with so many talented riders, with both show jumpers and dressage riders. It was my first time riding with a team and everyone was super supportive of each other, so it was a nice change from an otherwise very individual sport.
Have you been to Israel before? If not what was your favorite part about traveling to a new place?
AJ: I hadn’t been to Israel before. Tel Aviv felt a lot like a tropical European city; cafés, markets, skyscrapers, almost too comfortable to feel foreign. What I liked most were the people. My horse’s owner was direct and open.
LM: This was my first time going to Israel and one of my favorite things was being able to experience and connect more with the Jewish community. It was prevalent almost everywhere I went, in big to little ways. For example, I saw a mezuzah on every doorframe in our hotel, even the laundry room had one!