ALPENSIA, South Korea — Here he comes down to the finish now, traveling at a speed fast enough to earn a hefty Mass. Pike ticket, his flattened body hurtling head-first toward the yellow foam mat ready to cushion his stop.
But is there really any way to soften the sharp edges of the Olympic sport known as skeleton, a sport this rider subsequently describes as “taking a lunch tray, diving head-first onto it, and going about 90 miles an hour down an icy chute?”
That answer is easy: No.
But the next question, the one about how AJ Edelman, native of Brookline, Mass., graduate of MIT, former youth hockey standout, ended up competing here at the PyeongChang Olympics in skeleton, for Israel, well that one’s not quite so simple. But it is a whole lot more fun, represents one more beautiful example of the best of what the Olympics can be. From far-flung corners of the world, driven by deep, abiding athletic passion, athletes such as Edelman work toward a once-in-four-years moment in relative anonymity, eager and willing to do anything to make a dream come true. For this 26-year-old Massachusetts native who now lives in Israel, that meant using his dual citizenship to become the first skeleton athlete to represent Israel.
“I was basically wondering what to do with my life after hockey,” Edelman said, the second of his two training runs in advance of Thursday and Friday’s competition just completed. “I was an athlete and I didn’t want to shut it down, because basically if you don’t use it you lose it. I wasn’t going to play beer league, wasn’t going to cut it for me. I thought, ‘I could go join the Israeli hockey league,’ or I could really try and do something that would leave a lasting impact.
“So that to me, if I try for some impossible goal and somehow make it, then that story can get other kids involved, other kids from my community, which has very few athletes coming from it. I can try to catapult them to work toward their own dreams.”
But skeleton? Really? With its broken ribs and battered bodies, its impossible shoulder steering and no-hands sliding?
“I saw bobsled and skeleton on television in October of 2013 during the Lake Placid US team trials and I looked at the television, and I said, ‘That, that looks crazy.’ And I thought that would be the way to capture people’s imaginations.”
He has certainly captured his family’s, and his older brother Alex, younger brother Austin — an MIT undergrad — and parents Cheryl and Elazer are all here to cheer for him.
“He’s great, he set his mind on something and did it,” said Alex, a professional stand-up comedian and television writer. “He’s on this huge stage, but he’s just done a remarkable thing in a very workmanlike fashion. I’m totally into it.
“How do you do it? You put in the work, do what has to be done. That’s what he did. So I think he’s great. I think it’s a great story. I’m making something about it for the radio in England, a show for the BBC. He’s a phenomenal story. I wouldn’t want to ever say that what he’s done is unremarkable, but put it this way: I think it’s amazing but I’m not surprised.”
Fair enough, but it’s hard for the rest of us not to be. It’s amazing the way Edelman broke through in a sport dominated by the usual international juggernauts such as Germany, Canada, the US, and Norway, broke down and built up his own technique by watching hours upon hours of YouTube video clips, and broke out his early failures when he could hear the conversations around him saying he would never last.
“In my first race I finished 16 seconds behind the first-place dude and I pushed [what the sprinting start is called] a second slower than anyone else,” Edelman said. “Afterwards, I could hear someone over in a corner explaining to someone else that in this sport, most people quit after two years, it’s too painful. And they didn’t know I was listening. And they said, ‘See that guy over there, 16 seconds after the top guy, can’t run? He’ll be gone in two years.’ ”
Edelman’s response? The dream he intended to give eight full years to germinate was cut in half. Never mind the 2022 Olympics in Beijing. He set his sights on South Korea.
“I took out the piece of paper I still had, crossed out 2,884 [days] and wrote 1,442. I was like, ‘Not only am I going to make it, I’m going to make it in four years.’
“It’s pretty emotional for me.”
What a story. From the local rinks of Massachusetts to the Opening Ceremony in South Korea, a journey perhaps no one but AJ saw coming. Or even possible.
“It’s a beautiful thing, a beautiful thing to represent your country,” he said. “None of us are wearing name tags. You’re there as a representative of your country. And that’s what the Olympics are all about. There are a lot of things about the Olympics that maybe are not the most savory, but when it comes to representing your country and being that individual that is the face, they don’t see my face on the track, they see my helmet. It’s amazing. I get chills every time I put on my uniform.”
Like a certain favorite football player back home in New England, Edelman took the scouting report on him, ripped it up, and wrote his own.
“Not in a bajillion years could I be Tom Brady, but Tom Brady was told that he’d never be anything,” Edelman said. “It’s what I always come back to, is that scouting report they got, he’ll never be anything in the sport. Israel was basically told you can take the guy but he’s not going to do anything for you. That’s my Tom Brady thing.”