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Chicagoan Jillian Schwartz vaults for Team Israel, not USA

Lake Forest High School product Jillian Schwartz represents Israel LondGames is aware specter history. | Getty Images

Lake Forest High School product Jillian Schwartz represents Israel in the London Games and is aware of the specter of history. | Getty Images

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Updated: September 3, 2012 1:28PM



LONDON — Jillian Schwartz is speaking, but I tell her to wait a moment, please. It’s hard to hear with that helicopter hovering not far above us here in the Olympic Village.

She smiles courteously, then picks up when the helicopter moves off slightly and the noise has diminished.

‘‘So, I ran hurdles and did sprints and a little bit of long-jumping and high-jumping in high school,’’ the blonde, green-eyed, 32-year-old pro athlete says. ‘‘Sarah Spain was a year younger than me on the track team, and we would always see the boys pole-vaulting, and it looked like so much fun. So one day we were messing around with it a little bit, and we were told we couldn’t do it because of liability reasons.’’

Because they were girls.

This was Lake Forest High School in 1997, and Schwartz and teammate Spain, now a sportscaster in Chicago, were outstanding track athletes. Indeed, both would go to the Illinois state finals in different events, and Schwartz likely would have won the 100-meter hurdles if she hadn’t hit a hurdle in the semis, fallen and broken her foot. She had the fastest time entering the meet, but, as she knows, that doesn’t mean squat in the wild world of track.

The helicopter has circled around again, and I ask her to take another pause.

There is irony or symbolism or maybe just black remembrance in the disruption of our dialogue. Schwartz, who competed for the United States in the Beijing Olympics, now is a member of the Israeli team — a pole vaulter for the country, with dual citizenship and a belief in her Jewish heritage. 

And the helicopter is part of the super-tight security that now radiates out over the Olympics like a fog, due in large part to the massacre of Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Munich Olympics. 

Five of those terrorists were killed by West German police in a shootout, and two of the other three, later released from prison in a hostage swap, were eventually killed, along with others involved in the ‘‘Black September’’ massacre, allegedly by Israeli secret agents.

To say the attack on Jewish athletes from Israel, a nation that many extremists believe should not even exist, changed the Olympics for all time is no understatement. 

Yet here we sit on this lovely, sun-dappled day, a young athlete from Chicago and myself, as competitors and coaches from all nations walk casually and cheerfully by. That Schwartz had to go to Duke as an injured hurdler to finally be allowed to pole vault is an unfairness that, while hurtful, pales when compared to injustices past and ever to come.

‘‘So, 1998 was the first year for the NCAA to have women’s pole-vaulting as a main event,’’ says Schwartz, who will begin her MBA studies at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business in September. ‘‘That was my freshman year. I had been a gymnast all the way through high school, so coming from a gymnastic background probably helped me a lot.’’

She took to the event, passing her time at the lengthy sit-around-and-wait meets by reading, as pal Spain, a heptathlete by this time at Cornell, puts it, ‘‘the dumbest, girliest magazines like Cosmo and Vogue, right until it was time to jump.’’

At Duke, Schwartz set the school outdoor and indoor pole vault records (14-2 and 13-5 ¼), and after graduating with a degree in economics in 2001, she decided to make pole vaulting her career, turning pro and making the 2004 U.S. Olympic team, along with superstar and American pioneer Stacy Dragila.

Schwartz competed in the Athens Games, but did not place. In 2008 she cleared her personal-best height — 4.72 meters — but also failed to make the U.S. Olympic team that would compete in Beijing, finishing fourth in the trials.

Then came Israel.

‘‘In 2009 I competed in the Maccabiah Games in Tel Aviv, and I won, and later officials asked me if I wanted to compete for Israel. I pretty much took the rest of the year off, but I said yes.’’ One of the main reasons was that the United States is loaded with top women vaulters these days.

In theory, Israel is a nation that embraces all Jews as citizens. But it is not always so easy to prove who is or is not of Jewish heritage.

‘‘If you’re Jewish you can get citizenship,’’ Schwartz says. ‘‘I think they’re always looking. You know, last names. What you look like.’’

She had never been to Israel before the Maccabiah Games, but says now that it is ‘‘very meaningful to be there.’’

Which brings us back to that noise overhead.

‘‘It’s a little scary,’’ she says of the heritage she has bought into. Her white warmup reads ‘‘TEAM ISRAEL’’ on the back. ‘‘I don’t even know what to say about it. It’s crazy.’’

It is. The Israeli Olympic team has its own security force, and the athletes have been told to let the guards know where they are going, what they are doing, if they ever leave the village.

‘‘I can’t imagine it,’’ Schwartz says of the massacre, of the horror in the world. ‘‘A month ago in Israel we had a memorial to the Munich Games.  It was a short one, but it was amazing. Because it was really emotional. For those things to have happened at the Olympics, where everybody is supposed to be about community and friendship . . .’’

The massacre happened seven years before Jillian Schwartz was born. May she never live to see anything like it.



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