From the Maccabiah Games to the Olympics

by Craig Darch (Auburn, AL)

Dave Pincus contacted Mel Rosen in late 1976 about coaching the American track and field team at the 1977 Maccabiah Games. The Maccabiah Games, sometimes referred to as the Jewish Olympics, features Jewish athletes from countries around the world competing in all sports. The Games are held every four years in Ramat Gan near Tel Aviv. Pincus, the American representative for the Games, had the responsibility to select a coach for the track and field team. Pincus, a former track star at Penn State, had followed the success Rosen was having at Auburn and wanted him to coach the American team. “There was a small, but talented group of Jewish track and field coaches in the United States. Mel was the very best.”

Rosen, like most Jews who were interested in athletics, was quite familiar with the Maccabiah Games. Rosen was a friend of Irv Mondschein, track coach at Penn State and head coach of the American team in the 1973 Maccabiah Games. Mondschein’s stories about life in Israel intrigued Rosen. While Rosen was not a religious Jew, he was interested in most secular Jewish topics. Pincus called Rosen to ask if he would coach the U.S. team in Tel Aviv in 1977. “I said yes immediately. It was an honor to go to Israel and coach. I was appointed head track and field coach four times. It was on our first trip when I visited Yad Vashem [the National Holocaust Museum] that the full weight of the Holocaust hit me. I was proud to be a Jew. I understood the purpose of the Maccabiah Games was to give Jews from the United States and other countries an opportunity to learn about their Jewish heritage.”

A few days before the competition, Rosen and his team took a tour of Israel. They visited Masada, the most popular tour site of visiting Jews and the symbol of Jewish survival, and the Western Wall, considered the holiest of the Jewish sites. “To see Jews from all over the world praying together at the Wall—and the contrast between the ultra Orthodox and the Reform Jews from the United States—was an emotional experience for me.” When Rosen stood at the Western Wall, he followed the custom of inserting a written prayer or petition, into its cracks. Rosen wrote two prayers. His first asked for good health for everyone in his family. In his second, he asked to be named Olympic head coach. “I thought, why not, what could it hurt? When I walked away from the Wall, I figured I had done everything I could do to be named head Olympic coach.”

Rosen was named the head track and field coach for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics in November, 1989.

Dr. Craig Darch is the Humana-Sherman-Germany Distinguished Professor of Special Education at Auburn University, where he has taught for 32 years. While the Rosen book is his first biography, he has co-authored three college-level textbooks on learning and intellectual disabilities and has published more than 60 research articles for professional journals in the fields of special education and psychology.

This piece is an excerpt from From Brooklyn to the Olympics: The Hall of Fame Career of Auburn University Track Coach Mel Rosen by Craig Darch. It’s reprinted with the kind permission of NewSouth Books. For more information about the book, visit: http://www.newsouthbooks.com

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