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by Terri Hogan
Senior Staff Writer
Summer has been anything but relaxing for area athletes Erica Hjelle and Maxwell Spiritos, who will represent Team USA in the 20th World Maccabiah Games July 4-18 in Israel.
Hjelle, a swimmer, and Spiritos, a water polo player, are looking forward to what they expect to be an unforgettable experience.
More than 70 countries will compete in the Maccabiah Games, with over 9,000 participants of all ages.
The Maccabiah Games are often referred to as the “Jewish Olympics,” as the participants have a connection to the Jewish faith.
The event, held every four years, is billed as the third-largest sporting event in the world, featuring more than 40 sports in Olympic-style competition.
Hjelle and Spiritos did not know each other before their Maccabiah adventure began, despite having grown up a mile apart. Their mothers are friends, and made the connection that their children were going to Israel to compete.
Hjelle, 16, has been swimming since she was nine years old and swims for Rockville Montgomery Swim Club, Norbeck Country Club and Sherwood High School. She is a junior at Sherwood, where she holds the record for the 100-meter breaststroke.
In Israel, she will compete in the 200- and 400-meter individual medley, 100- and 200-meter breaststroke, and 100-meter butterfly events.
Spiritos, 18, just graduated from Landon High School and will attend the University of Illinois in the fall.
While at Landon, he swam and played football. In his sophomore year, he opted to try water polo instead of football — a decision he does not regret.
The Maccabiah Games application process is different for each sport. Hjelle had to complete an application and submit her times. Spiritos had to fill out an application but did not have to try out, since this is the first year the games will feature junior water polo.
Both recognize how fortunate they are to represent their country in international competition, which is motivating their training.
“I have put in a lot of hard work to get better,” he said. “This is a great opportunity to go to Israel and play for the USA, and will be something I always remember.”
Spiritos said he has spent the past three months training heavily — swimming, running and working out at the gym.
Hjelle, a year-round competitive swimmer, already has an arduous training schedule. She practices seven times a week in addition to working out at the gym.
She is looking forward not only to the competition, but also the chance to travel to a new place. Neither she nor Spiritos has been to Israel.
“It will be really cool to represent Team USA and the Jewish faith in Israel,” Hjelle said. “It will also be cool to travel and see what the country has to offer. This is a unique opportunity that most people in sports don’t get.”
Hjelle’s mother, Pam Hjelle, competed in the 1989 Maccabiah Games as a swimmer. Her experience inspired her daughter to apply.
“It was one of the best experiences of my life,” she said. “It was my first time far away, with people I didn’t know, and having to meet people and adjust. Competing in sports made the adjustment easier.”
Hjelle and Spiritos were scheduled to leave for Israel on June 26.
The Maccabiah Games will begin with opening ceremonies on July 4, complete with a parade of nations.
Terri Hogan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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