Life & Culture

Maccabiah: Motivation in action

Three very different competitors from the international Jewish sporting event tell their stories


Any athlete will tell you that sport is not just about beating the opponent in front of you, but also about overcoming something internal, whether it’s pushing through the pain barrier or beating fears of failure. And, while every competitor who made it to the 20th Maccabiah Games, which began this week in Israel, has achieved something remarkable, a few GB athletes are perfect examples of this.

Champion 15-year-old runner David Stone has overcome severe asthma and a series of bad injuries to represent GB in the junior 3,000-metre track race.

The JFS pupil — and budding artist — is one of the country’s most promising runners in that event, and has won a host of regional and national races since taking up the sport four years ago, including the under-13s London Mini Marathon Boroughs race.

In February, David, from Hendon, overcame asthma, a chest infection and a lost shoe to be the first Year-10 boy home in a combined Year-10 and 11, 6km race at the Middlesex Schools Cross Country Championships.

Starting slowly, he completed the first lap in fifth position. He surged into third place and was chasing the leading pack when his right running shoe came off.

He continued undeterred, even though the part of the course was on gravel, which “shredded the skin” on his foot, according to his father, Sheldon.

But just as he seemed unstoppable, in March, David tore the ligaments in his ankle while playing football. Amazingly, he was sidelined for only a month.

Despite a short career, David’s list of injuries is long. He has suffered an injury to his patella tendon, a fracture in his tibia and an osteochondral defect in his ankle.

But David, who runs for the Shaftesbury Barnet Harriers, has bounced back each time. Last summer, he ran in the Jerusalem 10K, finishing ninth despite competing against much older runners on a course which was “80 per cent hills.”

His father, Dr Sheldon Stone, says: “He is just capable of this great motivation. He really has a gift. We’ll see where it takes him but he’s got a fantastic determination. He just loves running.

“He found being injured immensely frustrating but he just keeps going. The way he focuses when he’s running is amazing.”

David himself says that, while he has appeared in a number of high-profile races in the past, the thrill of representing Britain is what will motivate him at the Maccabiah.

“The special thing about this is that you’re running for your country — it’s different from running for your club or school. Plus Israel is a place I love to go. I’m really looking forward to it.”

Dr Stone says he and David’s mother, Charlotte, are very proud of their son, believing “the world could be his oyster” if he maintains the work ethic he applies to running and his artwork.

Another teenager with true grit is Grace Alexander from Cheadle, Manchester, who will captain the GB under-18 women’s football team despite being diagnosed this year with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS), a connective tissue disorder, also known as hypermobility.

The genetic disorder means Grace has loose joints, which result in joint and muscle pain in between matches, as well as chronic fatigue and frequent sprains.

Grace, 17 was on her way to a physiotherapy session when I spoke to her. “It can be quite difficult. At first, I don’t think people really understood. It basically means every day I’m in pain, and I pick up quite a few injuries. I get through it by going to physiotherapy, but the main thing is feeling tired all the time.

“It’s also linked with lots of other conditions, like auditory processing, headaches and migraines.”

Grace’s EDS means her muscles are forced to work harder and are put under greater strain, leading to fatigue, which requires her to carefully manage what she’s able to do, while also visiting a range of specialists and physiotherapists, and pursuing a programme of stretching and pilates.

After years of misdiagnoses of “growing pains”, the family felt relieved in April when doctors told Grace and her family she had EDS.

The bad news was they advised her to give up football, but eventually relented. If someone is so determined that they are willing to suffer pain in their ankles, hips, back, neck, hands and toes, there’s not much anyone can do to stop them.

Grace, a pupil at Withington Girls’ School says that she defied the medical advice because “You can’t give up what you love. My weekend would be empty without football. I’m just going to play. I’ll carry on as long as I can and see what happens.”

Grace’s mother Amanda, who runs a media buying company with husband Edward, tells me of the relief she felt when her daughter was diagnosed, describing it as a “eureka moment”, after going to a number of specialists and dieticians to no avail.

“We’re beyond proud of her, and she’s so excited to be part of this mammoth athletic experience.”

Coming from a family of Manchester City fanatics, and idolising club captain Vincent Kompany, Grace has developed into a competitive, ball-winning central midfielder with a fantastic ability to read the game, which, her father argues, makes up for a slight lack of pace.

And having impressed at trials, she was named captain of the GB under-18s womens’ team for the Games, which is a great source of pride, given she’s one of only a few non-Londoners in the squad.

Proud dad Edward, himself a Maccabiah athlete, having played and scored for the GB men’s football at the 1993 Games, said it’s Grace’s love of football and the “buzz and excitement” of the sport that allows her to play through injuries.

But he and her mum are just as proud of her academic achievements, describing her as an “outstanding scholar”, who achieved ten A*s and an A in her GCSEs last summer.

And while EDS means Grace and her family can’t take it for granted that she’ll play football for many years to come, her dad says he is simply looking forward to watching her play in Israel this week.

Closer to home, the JC’s very own sports editor, Danny Caro, also had to overcome a six-month bout of illness to be fit enough to take part in this year’s Games.

Danny fell ill a year ago with a virus that eventually developed into labyrinthitis, a condition which causes the inner ear to become inflamed, affecting hearing and balance.

“I lost hearing in my left ear, and I’d wake up to find the room spinning,” says Danny. Until then, he’d been a regular at the gym, and a keen cricketer. “I tried to play cricket, but my judgment and balance were affected. I had to organise my life very carefully to meet my work commitments, often working from home. Lying in bed didn’t help, so I tried to grin and bear it. But it wasn’t easy.”

On a family holiday to America, Danny often felt claustrophobic. He also started to have hearing problems in his other ear, and worried about going completely deaf. He’d been picked for the Maccabiah team in September as player manager, because he had the experience to organise the GB men’s open cricket team, but wondered if he would be able to play.

Happily, from December, Danny’s health started to improve, and he was able to step up his training schedule.

“I started going back to the gym and building up my fitness. It was trial and error, I started off with fast walking and gradually increased the pace.

“For the last three months I’ve been at the gym every day at 6am. I go running as well. With the help of the coach and the captain, I’m now feeling confident that I’m a player/manager who can play cricket.”

He does still feel light-headed sometimes, a lingering symptom of the labyrinthitis. “If I get a dizzy spell I just hope it passes.”

At 44, he’s aware that this Maccabiah Games may be his last. “I’m just grateful to be here. Every day is a blessing.”

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive