The sled that was being used by Israel’s bobsled team was recently involved in a nasty crash during a training run in Whistler, B.C. The two-man crew came out of it alright, but the sled was a wreck.
The push bar that is used to give the sled momentum at the start of each run was twisted into the fibreglass body of the vehicle, ripping off the top and making it unusable.
For most other international teams, that wouldn’t be much of a problem, but for the Israelis, who have to rent a sled because they can’t afford one of their own, it could have meant the end of their season.
Luckily, the Vancouver company they called for help fixing the sled had experience working with fibreglass and was able to repair it. The company is owned by Israelis living in Vancouver, who stayed up until 2:30 a.m. one night so it would be ready the next day for the team’s training runs.
And with that good news in their back pockets, the Israeli team – Dave Nicholls, the pilot, and Ilya Malikin, the brakeman – got back to training for the World Championships, held during the first week of March in Whistler.
Competing in international events like the World Championships is prestigious for the Israelis, but it hardly pays the bills. Nicholls has mortgaged his home to fund the bobsled adventures he and Malikin are enjoying, and so far, a GoFundMe campaign has raised a few hundred dollars towards the $30,000 cost of acquiring their own sled, he said.
Nevertheless, the duo are turning heads on the World Cup circuit, not just because they represent Israel in a northern sport, but also because Nicholls is a paraplegic competing against able-bodies athletes.
Fifteen years ago, the New Jersey native damaged his spinal cord in a skiing accident. He took up the sport of bobsledding about one year later.
As a paraplegic, Nicholls begins each race seated in the front of the sled, with his brakeman, Malikin, pushing. Other teams have the advantage of both sledders pushing at the start.
“We’re at a deficit of 50 per cent push power because I can’t run,” Nicholls said.
Even though they are fast, other crews are faster. In November, while competing in the North American Cup, an event in Calgary that was sanctioned by the International Bobsleigh & Skeleton Federation (IBSF), Nicholls and Malikin finished 11th out of 12 teams. They completed their two runs in a combined time of 2:01.66, 10.14 seconds behind the first-place Canadian team. In their fastest run, they averaged 112.5 kilometres per hour, far behind the winners’ 125.43 km/hr.
A month before, at another North American Cup race in Calgary, Nicholls and his partner at the time, Ariel Lapp, finished ninth out of 12, 9.28 seconds behind the winners.
It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to represent Israel.
– Dave Nicholls
For Nicholls, being able to compete with the big boys is a victory in itself. He took up the sport 14 years ago, not long after his skiing mishap. In addition, the 55-year-old is the starting goaltender for the Vegas Golden Knights sled hockey team.
Back when he was first introduced to bobsledding, he used an adaptive sled that was fitted with a higher back to accommodate him. At a 2006 race, he was invited to be the “forerunner,” the first sled to go down the track, similar to a pace car in auto races, he said.
The president of the bobsled federation was in attendance. “He saw me, got excited and said he’d try to help make it a Paralympic sport,” Nicholls recounted.
Israel is expected to be one of 12 countries that will compete in the sport at the 2022 Paralympic Games and Nicholls, who now lives in Utah, made aliyah to become an Israeli citizen, so he could compete for the Jewish state.
As it happens, despite is relatively balmy winter weather, Israel already has a bobsledding and skeleton federation, along with seven athletes who train in the United States.
At the last Winter Olympics, A.J. Edelman represented Israel in the one-man skeleton, an event that sees the sledder face down on a sled, flying down the course headfirst.
“There are a lot of small countries that are involved in these sports who struggle every year to find athletes to compete,” said David Greaves, the Winnipeg-based head of the Israeli Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation.
“And we have done something in terms of growing our program that most small nations have not been able to do successfully,” he told JTA.
Greaves, along with Aaron Zeff, a former fighter pilot in the U.S. Air Force, and John Frank, a two-time Super Bowl champion with the San Francisco 49ers, founded the federation in 2002. The team twice represented Israel at World Championships.
There are a lot of small countries that are involved in these sports who struggle every year to find athletes to compete.
– David Greaves
Back in Israel, bobsledding isn’t exactly a sport at the top of anybody’s funding agenda, hence the problem getting money, even for basic equipment. But Nicholls and Malikin are authorized to represent the country and Nicholls believes that in itself should count as a sort of victory.
Qualifying for the World Cup is “super exciting,” said Nicholls, on the phone from Whistler. “It’s the first time Israel had a sled in the World Cup in 15 years.”
Despite the hardships of training and competing in a sport with little financial benefit, he loves what he’s doing.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to represent Israel,” Nicholls said.
And while there are the natural goals of doing well in races and winning medals, “the overall goal is to represent Israel positively,” he said. “It’s good to have a positive public relations image for Israel. There’s a lot of good Israel does in the world. Why not represent Israel in a sport on the world stage in a positive light, as well?”