Sage Stelzer came home with much more than she had left.
There were plenty of tangible spoils, none more notable than the silver medal she had helped win the United States U-18 women’s soccer team at the 21st Maccabi Games, but also a month of experiences that meant so much. The senior from Wissahickon couldn’t have asked for much more from the time she spent racing and scouting in Israel last month.
“It was definitely a life-changing experience,” Stelzer said. “I didn’t fully know what to expect going into it, the tryout was a summer before and I was trying to figure out college, I wasn’t sure, but once all those things settled in, I was there and I was able to just play, it was so much fun.
“I was able to connect with so many people from different countries and have that because of football and our religion was great.”
Held every four years in Israel, the Maccabi Games are the third largest sporting event in the world behind the Olympics and the World Cup in total number of competitors. The competition is open to Jewish athletes from around the world and to all Israeli citizens, regardless of religion, divided into four categories: Open, Junior, Masters and Paralympics.
Coming off her sophomore year at Wissahickon and a little worried about missing an entire month next summer, a staple of the college recruiting process, Stelzer initially wasn’t sure she wanted to try.
His dad, Josh, wouldn’t go along with it once he knew where the Eastern open tryouts would be held.
“It was at Spark Field (in Upper Dublin), so it wasn’t far to go,” Stelzer said. “Once my dad saw that, he said ‘it’s 10 minutes away, there’s no reason you shouldn’t try.’ So I decided to go for it.”
Stelzer was the only player from the area to make the team and had teammates from Florida, Texas and California, among other states. In the interim between joining the team and leaving for Israel this summer, the team met virtually a few times, but they wouldn’t really know what they had until they were together in person.
“Going in, I didn’t know anybody or if he was going to be the best or not one of the best,” Stelzer said. “I had to go in there, play my game and know that I was going to be special forever. Whether my team was good or my team was terrible, it was going to be a memorable experience.”
Stelzer left for Israel on July 3 (it was her first time traveling alone) and arrived on July 4 with the U-18 team, spending her first week in a pseudo-training camp. She and her teammates barely had time to check into her first hotel room before heading to practice, and the following week she saw two-day training sessions, 5 a.m. wake-up calls and plenty of travel. .
The reason for all those trips, and the first alarms, was that it was not just about football. In addition to competing in the games, the athletes had the opportunity to participate in the Maccabi Games’ Israel Connect program that explored the host country.
“We toured all of Israel, they took us to the Dead Sea and we stayed all the way to Haifa, so we really saw it from top to bottom,” Stelzer said. “I really liked Jerusalem and Tel Aviv as they both had different vibes. Tel Aviv is a lively city that is playing music and has what they call Shuk which is a huge open air market where you can come and go and haggle over prices, we don’t have any of that here. You can be there for hours or even days, probably could have gone back a few more times.
“When you go to Jerusalem, it is the holiest city in the Jewish faith, you walk to see the holy places and you find interesting places to look at and get a good view of the city. We visit the Western Wall which is very sacred and you can leave messages or wishes that you hope will come true and a lot of people stop to pray there.”
Similar to the Olympics, the Maccabi Games have elaborate opening and closing ceremonies where athletes from each nation are introduced and the games formally begin and end. United President Joe Biden attended the opening ceremonies, becoming the first sitting president to do so.
The ceremonies offered a first and last opportunity for athletes and competitors to interact with their compatriots from other nations and the celebrations also became a kind of marketplace. Stelzer said he was able to trade some of his clothing and gear with athletes from Australia, Panama, the Netherlands and a few others, but he also kept a handful of his team from the United States, including his final match jersey.
Before each game, a US team captain exchanged a ceremonial banner with the opposing country’s captain, a custom in international soccer. Once the games began, many of the events were held in a place called “the center”, where the soccer fields, tennis courts and some other competition sites were located, which also became a popular gathering place for athletes between events.
“Before every game, we went on strike with our starting 11, faced parents and fans and everyone was cheering for each country, which was great,” Stelzer said. “After the games, we would shake hands and talk, many of them asking for our SnapChat or adding us on Instagram. It was great to be able to meet all these different people from all over the world.”
On the pitch, it wasn’t an easy adjustment at first. The team’s first practice game against a local Israeli team did not go well, as the players began to realize that the fact that they could have been one of the best players on their respective teams would not translate into immediate success.
In addition, the US coaches had their own play style preferences, so the first week of training was important to build continuity and for each player to make their own individual adjustments.
“Those early scrimmages were interesting, we needed time to figure out how everyone else was playing,” Stelzer said. “Once we understood that and went into our first game against Australia, we knew we could win by doing this, this and this based on getting used to each other.”
Stelzer, who was committed to play at the University of Pittsburgh, played primarily as an outside wingback, but filled in a few slots as a wingback midfielder and as one of the fastest players on the team, he had a prominent role.
“My team and I knew my speed would come in handy because I could beat other players,” Stelzer said. “We would try to change the ball to the side and then we would play the long ball change that opened a gap for me to attack. Then we could get our runners from that far side in so I could pass the balls.”
Each game brought its own challenges, whether it was an overly physical opponent or another team that spent a lot of time joking with the referees, Stelzer said Team USA tried to focus on itself. That approach worked as Team USA went undefeated in round-robin play, including a victory over host Israel, who fielded their U17 national team in the games.
Unfortunately, a medical issue kept one of the team’s best players out of the final, a rematch with Israel that ended in a 1-0 loss to the USA to end up with the silver medal.
“It was a very close game,” Stelzer said. “The first half was a bit tough, but in the second we turned it around, attacked more and put the heat back on them.
“Getting the medals we lined up next to Israel and even though we had just lost to them they were very friendly and all the other countries in the stands cheered us on as the Maccabi theme played as they put the medals around our necks Take my picture holding our flag together is something I will not forget.”
Wissahickon opens its season on Monday, looking to repeat as SOL Liberty division champion and delve deeper into the District 1 playoffs. Having stepped out of his comfort zone this summer, Stelzer hopes to bring some of his Israel experience to his team. high school knowing that she will be looked for in important places this fall.
Stelzer brought more than he left last month and it was worth the trip.
“I’m very happy I did it,” Stelzer said. “I will still connect with the people I met on my team and even from other countries. Meeting all these people, including the other delegations and other sports, was just an incredible experience.”