Jewish Cool Runnings: Canadian on Israeli bobsled team aims for Beijing

Team Israel members, from left, Denis Kozev, Jared Firestone (who’s on Israel’s skeleton team), Dave Nicholls, Joey Starr, and Yaron Porter

Asked how long it takes people who meet him to come up with a jibe about “Jewish Cool Runnings” – referring to the 1993 hit movie about the unlikely Jamaican bobsled team – Joey Starr chuckles and says: “Instantaneously.”

He corrects himself: Nine out of 10 people make the connection, “and the 10th hasn’t seen the movie.”

As the sole Canadian on one of Israel’s two four-man national bobsled teams, Starr takes it all in stride – or slide.

The 29-year-old Toronto native and veteran of the Israel Defense Forces is a team brakeman who occupies the rear-most seat on a fiberglass sled that barrels through a twisting, turning ice course at speeds reaching a heart-stopping 150 kilometers an hour.Bobsleigh Skeleton Israel, the sport’s umbrella and governing body, was formed in 2002. Now, Israel’s two four-man bobsled teams are competing with each other to qualify for the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.

This past season, the teams competed in both two-man and four-man events in Park City, Utah and Lake Placid, N.Y. – important races sanctioned by the International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation (IBSF) because they form Olympics qualification criteria. In its first race last season, one of the four-man Israeli squads took sixth place.

Born in Toronto to parents who were both medical doctors, Starr attended Jewish day schools. Later, while living in Victoria, B.C., he was involved in the Jewish youth groups Habonim Dror and United Synagogue Youth.

He made aliyah in 2011 and joined the IDF as a lone soldier. After months of rigorous training, he went on to serve in Egoz, an elite unit known for guerrilla warfare, reconnaissance, and direct combat. He fought on the front lines of Israel’s Operation Protective Edge in 2014. He doesn’t talk much about his military experience, just that he did demolition work and was a light machine-gunner. The stint in the unit, he said, was physically demanding. “I carried a lot of weight,” he noted.

He was decommissioned from active service in 2016 and was working out at a gym one day when a friend called to say he had recommended Starr to the four-man bobsled team. Starr got in touch with one of the pilots, Dave Nicholls.“I had never seen a bobsled before,” Starr recalled in a telephone interview from Vancouver. The pandemic interfered with tryouts in Canada and Israel, but in the end, Starr believes he made the team based almost purely on his physical prowess.“

I was successful in meeting and exceeding some of the standards required,” he said. Those included lifting 225 kilos at least once, running a 60-meter sprint in under seven seconds, and a long jump.

He’s also had to bring his weight up from 175 pounds to about 200 pounds. “The trick is bagels and chocolate milk,” he said with a laugh.Starr recalls his maiden ride as “shocking. You’re coming from a background of dealing with intensity, but this is a different kind of intensity. You’re smacking the wall and pulling five Gs (of gravitational force).”

Even so, he was hooked. “I knew I had to stick with it.”Anyone who’s watched the sport can see how important the start is. Running and pushing the sled, then sliding into it without losing speed or control, requires balletic skills.Starr is actually one of three brakemen: One (Yaron Porter) is on the right side, one (Denis Kozev) on the left, and Starr is in the back. That means he has to be extra speedy since he’s the last one in.

“Joey is a beast!” enthused the U.S.-born Nicholls in an email to The CJN. “He is very strong and fast and an important member of the team since I do not run.”That’s right. Nicholls must be seated in the pilot’s position before the race even starts. He cannot run because he suffered a skiing accident in 2002 and has been driving for 17 years as the world’s first seated, paraplegic pilot. He’s won gold, silver, and bronze medals in IBSF Para World Cup Competitions.

What that means for the rest of the team is that the already weighty sled is about 200 pounds heavier at the start with Nicholls inside.As Starr explains, there are three elements of the sport: The push, the piloting, and the equipment.“

It’s really a team sport,” he said. “The goal is to achieve a synchronicity in the push.”When all four are snugly in the sled, “the objective is to minimize our movement as much as possible. Any movement can cause an alternation in aerodynamics or direction of the sled. And that could cost us the race, by a fraction of a second.”

The overall ride is “very difficult on the body,” he explained.The bobsled season is short – October to January – so there’s little room for error. Depending on the pandemic, teams have five or six major races before they can qualify for the Beijing Games.

Meantime, the Israeli team is fundraising for a new sled, estimated to cost $97,000 and $12,000 for the runners. The team’s coach, Lee Johnson, is a three-time Olympian from the United Kingdom who requires $50,000 per season, plus lodging. As well, there’s airfare for the athletes as they travel around the world to compete. In all, the team needs to raise approximately $175,000 this season and next.

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