December 11, 2018

SoCal athletes find fulfillment at Maccabiah Games

When Dave Blackburn, a six-time starting softball pitcher for the Maccabi USA team, got into a severe car accident in 2010, he had one central fear.

“I’ll never be able to play softball again,” Blackburn recalled thinking. “I won’t be able to make it to the 19th [Maccabiah] Games.”

The accident cost Blackburn of Santa Monica a leg, and since then, he hasn’t been back on the pitcher’s mound. Three years after almost losing his life, though, he was back in Israel last month for the 19th Maccabiah Games — the quadrennial event known as the “Jewish Olympics” — and he was competing for the United States.

This time, he played Paralympic table tennis here, sitting in a wheelchair. A six-time medalist as a softballer, Blackburn, 53, lost three straight table tennis games to Israel this time around. 

But Blackburn doesn’t come to Israel every four years along with thousands of Jewish athletes just to bring home the gold. He says that camaraderie and Jewish heritage are what keep drawing him back.

“The Maccabiah flame burns strong in my heart, to get involved in the programs,” he said. “All my best friends in the world and all the best times I’ve had are tied to them.”

Almost 150 Southern Californians were among the more than 1,100 Americans joining Blackburn at this year’s games, which celebrated opening ceremonies July 18 and ended July 30. Some of them also appreciate what Blackburn’s felt for almost 30 years — that the Maccabiah offers a unique opportunity to combine athletic excellence with Jewish identity.

“The best part of the Maccabiah is connecting with Jewish athletes from all around the world,” said Andi Murez, 21, a swimmer from Venice Beach competing in her second Maccabiah. “There’s an extra connection that creates a deeper relationship when you meet someone.”

Murez was one of Maccabi USA’s standout athletes, collecting seven medals in the pool this year — five golds and two silvers. She won nine medals in her first Maccabiah in 2009, and completed four years of collegiate swimming at Stanford University this year. 

“It actually didn’t feel that good,” said Murez, recalling her gold-medal, record-breaking 100-meter swim this year. “It didn’t feel that easy, but you sprint and hope for the best. I was actually really surprised at my time, but it was a nice surprise.”

Ian McKinnon, an 18-year-old baseball outfielder from Burbank who competed in his first Maccabiah, said he enjoyed the Jewish aspect of the games. 

“I’m not a very religious person, but it’s something to be proud of,” he said. “There are maybe 10 Jewish kids in my high school, so you rarely get to compete against Jewish athletes.” 

McKinnon joined the baseball team with his brother Sam, 17, a catcher. Both of them have plenty to be proud of on the field. Sam caught two consecutive no-hitters against Canada — the first in Maccabiah’s history — and both brothers drove in several runs to help the United States to a gold medal in the juniors division.

Without a stroke of luck, they may not have been there at all. Ian heard his coach’s wife mention the Los Angeles tryouts for the Maccabiah two days before they took place, and Sam had one response: “Why not?”

“I’d never been to Israel before and baseball’s pretty much my life, so putting both together seemed like the right thing to do,” Sam said. “It seemed like a fun experience.”

Both McKinnons say it’s also been a meaningful one. Before the Maccabiah began, the U.S. delegation participated in a program called Israel Connect, which took the athletes on a tour of Israel’s core Jewish sites. Sam’s favorite place was Masada, and Ian preferred the Western Wall — though he’s also a fan of Israel’s weather, which reminds him of home.

Sam and Ian helped their Burbank High School Bulldogs to a league championship last season, and Ian hopes to play for UC Berkeley next year, where he’ll be attending college.

For some older players, though, the Maccabiah is a rare chance for organized, official play on a high level. Joe Leavitt, 39, runs Twitter’s Los Angeles office and — at 6-foot-4, 225 pounds — has worked his way up through the city’s pickup basketball scene to the point where he’s facing former NBA players in invite-only games. He savors the Maccabiah, though, for the opportunity to play with a cohesive team.

“Our team is a bunch of guys that work behind a desk all day, so we really get up for these games,” he said. “The combination of getting on the bus to go to the game, sitting in the locker room, putting on your uniform and playing for your country is unparalleled, especially at this age.”

That excitement powered Leavitt — a center and power forward — and the 35-and-over Americans to a first-ever victory over Israel, 86-73. Using fast breaks and an efficient offense, they beat a team of former professional basketball players. In the finals, the United States defeated Russia 78-61 to take the gold.

Playing a professional-level game was also important for the U.S. rugby team, which took home gold in seven-a-side rugby and bronze in 15-a-side rugby. 

To prepare, the team got access to an Olympic facility, and even spent three hours on the beach training with eight Navy SEALs. The SEALs made team members crawl, climb over ropes, do thousands of sit-ups and pushups, and cover their faces in sand.

“Everyone was mentally fatigued and physically wanted to give up, but everyone stuck through to the end,” said Dallen Stanford, 34, a native of Capetown, South Africa, who lives in Santa Monica. Stanford plays fly-half, the rough equivalent to a quarterback in football.

U.S. rugby coach Shawn Lipman, 48, captained the rugby team in 1997, but said that in some ways, coaching is harder.

“As a coach, you never get a chance to relax because you’re constantly in that mode of having to assess and watch,” he said. “You can’t just go out there and play. You have to do your work off the field.”

This was Lipman’s sixth Maccabiah, and Blackburn’s seventh. To celebrate the central role the games have played in his life, Blackburn is creating a documentary about the tournament. He said, though, that for the 9,000 athletes participating this year, some of the Maccabiah’s best moments happened off the field.

“When you play in secular competitions, you make friends, you battle hard, drink a couple of beers,” he said. “But here, it’s like everyone is one big family.”

For more stories and results involving local athletes, visit this story at