In over three decades of experience coaching high school cross country, and many years with track and field as well, IHS graduation coach Rich Bernstein has seen it all . . . almost. From his departure on June 27 to his return on July 18, Bernstein had the honor of co-coaching the USA Juniors Track and Field Team at the World Maccabiah Games in Israel, where it is hosted every four years. The Maccabiah Games is an international athletic competition for Jewish and Israeli athletes. The event—the history of which dates back to 1932—follows an Olympic-style format, with all twenty-eight current Olympic sports included, along with a few others. In 2009, the Junior division was added, in which qualifying participants range between ages 15 to 18. According to Bernstein, eighty countries were represented at the Games, with the United States’ delegation of 1,100 athletes by far the largest. The Israeli and Canadian delegations were second and third in size, respectively.
Bernstein, who hoped to be able to “bring a little bit of Lil’ Red knowledge” to his track and field squad, had a great experience with his athletes, and personally connected with them. This was apparent through his frequent updates on social media, and his thoughts on the trip. “We spent basically every waking hour together—between meals, bus rides, touring, and completion—so we all became close,” Bernstein said. “I had numerous conversations with distance runners about our training, and how push-ups are a regular consequence for lateness, cursing, and forgetting things.”
For his athletes, the desert climate required some acclimation. “The temperature, ranging from 90 to 105 degrees Fahrenheit, definitely hampered training. We also had to travel an hour just to get to an outdated track on a kibbutz. We did have our meets at 8:00 p.m. in Jerusalem, and it was a bit cooler then,” said Bernstein. Despite competing in heated temperatures, the Maccabiah USA Juniors Track and Field team secured twenty-three medals to defeat Israel, a competitive rival. Overall, though, USA Juniors finished second in the medal count to Israel, 288 to 97. Still, the team “performed admirably,” commended Bernstein.
For the Ithaca coach the trip was about more than just athletics. “My biggest takeaway was that this was an amazing cultural experience with athletics thrown in, not the other way around!” he said. Bernstein, having never been to Israel before, described the Middle Eastern nation as a very complicated, emotional place. “Emotions run high on both sides, and the peace situation seems almost intractable,” Bernstein lamented. “Riding on a bus passing the Gaza Strip where walls, razor wire and guard towers are along the highway made me feel sad and disappointed.”
However, he also had a more personal connection. “Touring old Jerusalem, the Dead Sea, and Masada were very special to me. At the Western Wall, I was asked to join a group to say Kaddish [a prayer for the Dead] with a group of Russian tourists. That was especially moving to me as a Jew,” Bernstein explained, who felt as though he was touching ancient history while visiting the Western Wall, with its prayer strips tucked inside.
Representing the red, white, and blue was certainly an experience of a lifetime for Bernstein, who was proud to wear “USA” on his clothing. He was also honored by the USA’s welcome reception not only by their Israeli hosts, but by other nations as well. Once Bernstein returned to the United States, it was time to get back to doing what he’s worked towards to make a name for himself: coaching cross country.
The Ithaca Lil’ Red concluded last season at the NXN New York Regional Meet, where the boys finished tenth, and the girls fifteenth. This year, the boys team will be led by senior captain Silas Derfel ’18, who will look to improve upon an already impressive 2016 season in which he placed sixtieth out of 195 runners. “Despite losing some top flight seniors, whose leadership will be missed, we return some solid guys,” said Bernstein. Along with Derfel, the varsity team will feature seniors Noah Mattice ’18, Scott Smith ’18, and co-captain Devon Finlay ’18, as well as sophomore Xander Simpson ’20 and freshman Ben Supron ’21. The junior varsity runners, who have been training all summer, will also look to push for a varsity spot or two.
Unlike the boys team, which graduated four of its top seven runners from last season, the girls team only graduated one, and will have relative depth. “The girls can be as good as they want to, as long as injuries don’t derail us,” said Bernstein. “Captain and all-state runner Lizzy Rayle ’18 is the leader of the pack, followed by co-captain Zoe Wilkie-Tomasik ’18, Amy Milner ’18, Grace Widercrantz ’18, and Ingrid Comella ’19, plus other veterans and newcomers that have been training well all summer.” With skilled, veteran leadership, the girls team could be in for a successful season.
The cross country team has a new assistant, Leanne Young. Young ran in college, and is a school counselor at DeWitt Middle School. The team will also have the assistance of Rachael Waldrop, a former captain at IHS and St. Lawrence University.
For those interested in attending meets, aside from two preseason time trials (at Cass Park and Ithaca College), there are no plans for Lil’ Red to have a home course again in the coming years. This means that families, friends, and fans will continue to trek through Upstate New York’s rolling hills, oftentimes early in the morning, and in the company of freezing temperatures and occasional downpours. But that’s the nature of cross country: it’s away from the comfort of the gymnasiums, or the million-dollar fields. It’s in the slippery mud, the freezing rain, and and the daunting hills, in nature’s elements. It’s a competition between two things: the runner, and the runner’s mind. It’s a sport unlike any other.