Like the popular film classics “Miracle on Ice” and “Rocky IV,” in which underdog American athletes triumph over heavily-favored Soviet competitors, wrestler Matt Greenberg says his gold-medal win at the 2005 international Maccabiah games against a Russian challenger felt like something out of a movie.
“Standing on the podium in Israel and hearing the American national anthem was very emotional,” said Greenberg, 32, who comes from Upper Saddle River. “It was like a Hollywood ending playing out for me.”
His experience at the Maccabiah games was the impetus behind Greenberg’s return to coaching four years ago, after earning a master’s degree and starting his career. Last year the Maccabi board of trustees appointed him head coach of the wrestling team that will represent the United States at the July 2013 games there.
The Maccabiah takes place every four years and is the world’s largest Jewish athletic competition. Often called “the Jewish Olympics,” it attracts some 10,000 Jewish athletes from all over the world.
Greenberg, who lives in Lancaster, Pa., and is an assistant wrestling coach at Franklin and Marshall College, calls his experience in 2005 “life-altering.
“Growing up, Israel was always a place I had heard about. But, seeing it added a third dimension for me,” he said, recalling a trip to Masada with other international teams, running on the beach along the Mediterranean, climbing mountains, and swimming in the Dead Sea. He added that watching the athletes compete – “doing it for a love of their sport and their country”- also deeply affected him. “Seeing how sports transcend all barriers and life styles was very intense.”
Greenberg retired from competition in 2005, but his love for the sport lives on in his coaching duties at Franklin and Marshall and with the Maccabiah Team USA.
“Wrestling is a team sport, but really it’s what you, the individual, make of it,” he said. Another aspect of wrestling that he appreciates is its inclusiveness. “There’s a spot for you, no matter what your size. Wrestling welcomes all different types of people, all different levels of competition for different skill levels and commitment levels.”
He says that coaching wrestling is unusual because, “You’re not just yelling at people, but you have to be on the mats participating with the team. I may not be representing a team or a country in an active event, but I still have daily practices, I’m still in the weight room, I still do a lot of things I did before, except that now it’s to get others ready for their competitions.”
In addition to his charges at the college, he now has 10 athletes to train for the 19th Maccabiah games. Opening ceremonies are slated for July 18 at Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem.
“We held wrestling trials in April for some 70 wrestlers nationwide, from which the winner of each weight class will represent the USA,” he said. He plans to hold a training camp session for them at Franklin and Marshall before they leave.
Greenberg said that he expects Maccabiah team members to face off against some of the top competitors from around the world. “The Maccabiah games are highly respected,” he said. For a Jewish athlete, it’s second only to the Olympics. For the wrestling community, it’s a world event that people hold in high regard. Wrestling is a sport where you see a strong Jewish affiliation across the world. Some of the top competitors worldwide are Jews.”
From now until the American athletes depart for Israel on July 10, Greenberg is preparing his team members by getting them up to speed on rules and the competition they will face during the three-week event. His advice is straightforward: “The main thing is to work as hard as you can and don’t have any regrets when you’re out there, give it your all when you’re competing but have fun while you’re doing it. Take it seriously – but also enjoy the experience.”
He’s also preparing his team members, many of whom have never been there before, for the impact of being in Israel. “I want them to understand that this will be a spiritual and personal journey, and that they should be open-minded and make the most of it,” Greenberg said. He draws from his own experience: “I’m not super religious, but being in Israel was an opportunity for me to take wrestling – something that’s almost a religion to me – and tie it into who I am as a Jew. If it was a religious pilgrimage without the wrestling, I don’t know that I would have gone. But it all tied in, and it became as close to spiritual as I can get.”
Greenberg is excited about his team’s prospects. With wrestlers from Colorado, Indiana, Kansas, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Texas, and Washington, D.C., he thinks he has a strong team that will do well.
“We could have three or four gold medalists,” he said. “I hope everyone wins a gold medal. I’ll give them all the tools and knowledge to prepare for it, but the performance is up to them.”
The 19th Maccabiah games run from July 18 ““ 30 in cities across Israel. JLTV online will provide coverage of the opening ceremonies, clips from the games, and interviews.