Eventer Alexa Perkiel thought she had her summer plans figured out. She would travel from her hometown of Park City, Utah, to work for Olympians Karen and David O’Connor at their farm in The Plains, Va., gaining valuable upper level eventing experience.
Perkiel now has the ride on Karen O’Connor’s former four-star and 2008 Olympic Games mount Mandiba. She’s competing him at preliminary and most recently was fifth at the Millbrook Horse Trials (N.Y.).
But on the same day in May that she confirmed those plans, she received a call she wasn’t expecting. Perkiel had been invited to represent the United States as one of eight equestrian athletes in the 19th Maccabiah Games in Tel Aviv, Israel, held July 17-30.
“It was pretty exciting, and I was able to talk to Karen about both things happening at the same time,” said Perkiel, 25.
Last fall, Perkiel had applied to be an alternate show jumping rider for the Games. Known as the Jewish Olympics, the Games were including dressage and show jumping, the first equestrian sports ever to be incorporated in their 81-year history.
Held every four years since 1932, the Maccabiah Games have grown to be the third largest sporting event in the world. This year, more than 9,000 athletes from more than 70 countries competed in 34 sports; more than 100 athletes from the 2012 Olympic Games attended.
While the U.S. delegation sent 1,100 people in total, the equestrian group had 11, which included team manager Sloane Milstein, show jumping coach Neal Shapiro and dressage coach Becky Brown.
Sports aren’t the only piece of the Maccabiah Games experience. Many athletes use the trip to go on their birthright journey, traveling across Israel and learning about their heritage.
The entire U.S. delegation traveled across Israel for a week before the Games, visiting sites like Jerusalem and the Dead Sea.
For Perkiel, the time was right since she was the only one in her family who hadn’t been. “My family had wanted me to go to Israel,” she said. “My sister and brother had been, and my dad and younger brother went when he graduated high school. My family was very excited. It was emotional for my dad, and he was really proud.”
Perkiel’s grandfather and his brother on her dad’s side had survived the Holocaust, so the trip was moving for her too. “It’s emotional, it’s sad. We’re all a bit naïve coming from America and where we live and how we grew up,” she said. “It’s kind of hard for us to really know and imagine and feel what has happened before us and how we got here, so it was nice to be able to learn about it and have more of a respect for where we come from and all the culture that comes with our religion.”
Preparing To Catch Ride
While the U.S. riders were traveling across Israel, they still had to make time to prepare for the competition.
With the help of a local Israeli rider, the group found a stable where they could ride and get to know their coaches before the start of the competition. “That was pretty exciting. It was a lot of movement and travel and learning and history and riding, all in a few packaged days,” said Perkiel.
The format of the equestrian competition allowed the Israeli athletes to bring their own horses if they wanted, but other countries had to draw from a group of horses on loan for the Games. Riders were originally given the option to bring their own horses, but the U.S. team decided against it because the quality of the facilities was unknown.
Along with the United States, riders from Mexico, Guatemala, Germany and Hungary drew horses and were able to meet them at the competition site, Kibbutz Yagur, a new riding facility outside of Tel Aviv.
The show jumping courses were set at 1.30 meters, and the dressage riders had to ride the equivalent of second or third level, and both disciplines were run under Federation Equéstré Internationale rules.
To add to the challenge of catch-riding, each rider was only allowed a certain number of rides at a time limit before the Games started, similar to intercollegiate riding competitions.
The show jumping riders, Charlotte Gerstenfield, Corrie Goldman, Rebecca Weissbard and Perkiel, were only permitted a total of 24 practice jumps from the time they drew their horses until they went in the ring.
The dressage team, Carly Goldstein, Wendy Garfinkel, June Brody and Rebecca Brown, was also limited in the time they had to get to know their mounts.
Brown, also an eventer, decided to apply for the dressage team because she had experience in upper-level dressage. She was able to practice on a client’s Prix St. Georges horse before the Games and was the only U.S. rider to compete in the advanced division, while the rest of the team competed in the medium level. “It’s kind of an interesting format. It’s not easy to catch-ride at third level on horses you don’t know, for anyone. You get four 30-minute practices,” said Brown, 26, of Dallas.
There weren’t enough horses at each level to name teams, so the dressage riders rode as individuals. Each rider rode three tests. The first test counted 20 percent, the second 30 percent and the third 50 percent.
“I probably drew the nicest horse,” Brown said. “[Milani] was 19, but she had been a previous Israeli national advanced level champion. It was all in there. She tried very hard. We had very nice tests but didn’t quite get the scores that I thought we were going to get. She would get a little bit tense, I think mostly because of her age [and] getting a little bit tired.”
Although Brown’s scores were lower than she’d hoped for, she found the experience of catch riding challenging and rewarding. “Anytime you get to ride on a team, it’s a totally different experience then riding for yourself. Overall, it just leaves me wanting more,” she said.
A Team Effort
Perkiel got a little luckier with the horse she drew. Epo Van De Rispan, an 8-year-old Belgian Warmblood, turned out to have less experience then she was told, but his style suited her. “He was more of an event-horse style, which worked out well for what I’m used to. He didn’t have quite the scope and the jump and the bounce like some show jumping horses, but he was very safe, and I felt comfortable on him,” she said.
She helped her team to a silver medal, just 1 point behind Israel.
Weissbard, an experienced junior catch rider, won the individual gold. She had some bad luck when the first horse she drew came up lame after three practice days, but the reserve horse, Duvel, was a good match for the 19-year-old from Manorville, N.Y.
“I got to ride him for maybe 20 minutes the day before competition, jumped four jumps, and the next day we went in the ring. He was amazing,” she said. “He and I clicked very fast. He was like one of my horses at home, so it was very easy for me to figure him out.”
Weissbard, whose grandparents are longtime supporters of the Maccabiah Games, was proud to represent her country and impressed with the kindness of the Israeli people. “Being able to represent my country and hear the Star Spangled Banner play for me was unreal,” she said. “The people there are so nice. They’re just starting their equestrian [sport] over there. Almost all of the horses are imported. They’re just starting with their homebreds. I think it will grow fast.”
Perkiel echoed her sentiments, adding that the experience of being on team was one she’ll never forget. “We as a team were super grateful to have [Sloan] as well as Neal Shapiro and Becky Brown. We were definitely able to learn about each other, have a good time and work with each other, and help each other with tacking up and braiding. To do that with people you don’t know in a foreign country was really special. I think we would all go back in a heartbeat,” she said.
For full results, visit the official Maccabiah Games website.