Athletes at the University of Rochester take a lot of pride in representing our school when they compete, and having the opportunity to represent the entire university can be very inspiring.
For Shira Katz ’18, playing volleyball for the Yellowjackets opened the door to play for something even bigger: her country.
Shira, who hails from New Albany, Ohio, traveled to Santiago, Chile in December to compete in the Maccabi Pan American Games, an Olympic-style event in which countries from North and South America send some of their best athletes with Jewish roots to compete in various sports.
“It was really cool to sport U.S. gear all the time and feel proud about it,” Katz says.
The process of making the U.S. women’s volleyball team started last fall, when Katz’s coach at UR, Ladi Iya, received an email from the Maccabi coach, asking if Katz was interested. Katz thought the idea sounded exciting but doubted it would ever actually happen. The seemingly far-flung opportunity became more realistic when the U.S. coach attended one of UR’s games and told the sophomore she’d fit in well on his squad.
After the fall semester came to a close, Katz headed to Brooklyn for a two-day training camp with her new teammates before flying to South America. Despite only vaguely knowing one other teammate—a player from Brandeis University, which plays in the same conference as UR—the squad had instant chemistry.
“I just loved my team,” Katz says. “Some of them will be lifelong friends for sure. Our personalities clicked so well. It was by chance, by luck.”
Although some of the countries they faced were made up of teams that have been competing together for quite some time, what the U.S. lacked in experience it clearly made up for in chemistry. In the preliminary rounds, Team USA beat Peru and two different Chilean teams, enabling it to advance to the medal round.
The gold medal match against Brazil turned out to be one of Katz’s favorite memories of the trip, even if the final result was a Brazilian victory in five sets.
“We lost, but it was a really good match.” she says, adding that she thought experience played a role in the final outcome. “They were a very seasoned team, and we had only been together for two days before the competition.”
Just as at UR, the intensity was high, though there were some major differences between Maccabi Pan American and NCAA Division III volleyball. The teams in Chile were made up of players aged 18-35, and while the U.S. team was predominantly college players like Katz, other countries had rosters with older players in their late 20s and 30s.
“Some of them weren’t jumping as high, but they were all very smart,” Katz says.
Along with the gold-medal match, Katz’s other favorite part of the trip was the opening ceremony. Much like the Olympics, the athletes paraded into a stadium country by country in alphabetical order, greeted by thousands of friends, family members, and fans.
“We were waiting outside for a while, because we’re the United States, so it was near the end of the alphabet,” Katz recalls. “But finally we heard the ‘USA’ chant and we walked in, and there were lights everywhere. It was a stadium full of people, and all the countries on the field. It was really sweet.”
The opening ceremony also gave the athletes a chance to mingle. Katz ended up talking to a couple of players from the U.S. rugby team, and the next thing she knew, the rugby players, whom she described as “massive” had—in a friendly manner—lifted her up onto their shoulders, a move that is actually common in rugby matches. Experiences like this seemed to define the Games for Katz, as it’s not everyday you get hoisted up by two fellow athletes as you walk into a stadium, representing your country.
After the Games came to a close, in addition to the memories, Katz also found herself with some new lifelong friends.
“This team was super close,” she says. “In a week and a half I felt like some of them were my sisters, that’s how close we were.”
Competing on the Maccabi USA team was not necessarily a one-time deal for Shira. In the summer of 2017, the World Maccabi Games are scheduled to be held in Israel, where every country brings the best they have for the world’s premier competition of Jewish athletes.
And while the U.S. roster is far from set, Katz said she would love to be able to represent her country again, this time on an even bigger stage.
“Israel is when everyone brings everyone that they’ve got,” she says. “Because the Pan Am games are a big deal, but Israel is the main event,”