At 67, Mitchell Berliner considers himself in pretty good shape. So on a whim, the Potomac resident picked up the phone and called the people running the Pan American Maccabi Games to see if he might be able to qualify for the swim team.
“I wanted to find out what times I needed” to qualify, he said. But after the person answering the phone asked him how old he was, Berliner immediately was told, “Okay, you are on the team.”
Berliner, along with 36 other athletes and coaches from the Washington area, are taking part in the games in Chile, which began Sunday and continue through Jan. 4, 2016.
More than 2,500 Jewish athletes from 22 countries are participating. Team USA has 314 athletes on 33 teams and is competing in 14 sports.
Erica Gelb of Baltimore has competed in field hockey at several earlier Maccabi games. She earned bronze medals playing in Australia and Argentina and a silver competing in Israel.
This time, she is the assistant coach of the women’s field hockey team; two of her cousins, Allison and Emily Weiner of the Baltimore suburb of Lutherville, are on the team. The women’s team met for the first time when they arrived in Chile and began practicing only after that.
“It works out,” she said. “Obviously we are there to win medals, but it’s about more than that.
“It’s really nice to be able to be surrounded by all these athletes and all these Jews,” added Gelb, who plays hockey once a week for most of the year through the Baltimore Field Hockey Association, an adult coed league.
Lou Moyerman, general chairman, said the 13th Pan American games are designed to “build Jewish pride through sports as well as through three community service projects, including a food drive, hospital visits and free eye examinations and glasses for more than 1,000 Chilean children.”
Berliner, who is swimming freestyle in the masters division, already has experienced that pride. He and his wife, Debra Moser, hosted three young athletes from California during previous Maccabi games.
“We had a ball,” he said. Moser also went to Chile and is photographing athletes from the Maryland area.
Berliner, a member of Washington Hebrew Congregation, swam competitively only in the eighth grade. But once he realized he was on the team, Berliner hired a coach to help him improve his speed.
That coach told him “I am swimming wrong. I had my head wrong. I had my arms wrong,” he said. “I just swam to stay healthy” and wasn’t aware of the best way to move through the water.
Two months before going to Chile, Berliner learned how to do a racing dive off the blocks, he said.
He is aware he probably will be swimming with athletes who have stayed competitive throughout their lives. He’s also aware that some of the other sports, golf in particular, are harder to get on the team at his age.
No matter, he said, he’s going to give it his best shot.
“My goal,” he joked, “is not to have a heart attack or embarrass myself.”