Jewish Olympian heads to Vancouver with her rifle

When the phone rang at the Spector family home in Lenox, Mass., last month, the voice on the other end betrayed little of the excitement one would expect from a newly minted Olympian.

Laura Spector, 22, had qualified for the U.S. Olympic biathlon team that will be competing this month in Vancouver.

“It was a very quiet voice, and it was just, ‘Daddy, hi it’s Laura. I made the team,’” her father, Jesse, recalled. “It was just like that. It was that quiet.”

Spector will be the youngest American woman vying in the biathlon, which combines cross-country skiing with target shooting. She is also one of five athletes measuring in at 5-feet tall — the shortest members of the 2010 U.S. Olympic team.

U.S. Olympian Laura Spector competes in the biathlon, a sport that combines cross-country skiing and rifle shooting. photo/jta/nordic focus

A student of genetics and Jewish studies at Dartmouth College, Spector is among a handful of Jews headed to Vancouver for the 21st Winter Olympics, which begin Feb. 12.

Chicago native Ben Agosto, 27, a 2006 Olympic silver medalist with his partner, Tanith Belbin, will return to compete in the ice-dancing pairs. Steve Mesler, 31, a bobsledder from Buffalo, N.Y., will be competing in his third Olympics.

Two big-name U.S. Jewish figure skaters, Sasha Cohen and Emily Hughes, failed to snag any of the three U.S. team spots at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships last month in Spokane, Wash. Cohen, 25, and Hughes, 21, were both members of the 2006 Olympic team. Cohen is an alternate on the 2010 squad, having finished fourth in Spokane.

Spector grew up on a farm and became a bat mitzvah at Conservative Congregation Knesset Israel Synagogue in Pittsfield, Mass. She discovered biathlon at a sports camp when she was 14.

“It was my first experience with shooting a gun, but I loved combining two sports — cross-country skiing and marksmanship — to make each a little more challenging,” Spector wrote in an e-mail. “Therefore, the greater the reward when you do well.”

Though well off the sports radar in the United States, biathlon is wildly popular in Europe. Jesse and Patty Spector have watched their daughter perform in stadiums packed with thousands of fans in Europe, and will be in Vancouver for most of the Games to cheer on Laura.

“What Jewish mother would not go see their daughter?” said Patty.

Among the U.S. Jewish Olympians, Mesler looks to have the best chance for a medal. He competes in four-man bobsled as one of three pushers on a team that finished seventh at the 2006 Turin Games. However, that same team won the 2009 world championship and is now favored to become the first U.S. four-man sled to win Olympic gold since 1948.

Israeli is sending three athletes to compete in Vancouver — downhill skier Mikail Renzhin and the brother-sister ice-dancing duo of Alexandra and Roman Zaretsky.

It is Israel’s smallest delegation to the Winter Games since 1998, when the nation also sent three athletes. Israel sent five athletes to each of the last two Winter Games — in Turin, Italy, in 2006 and Salt Lake City in 2002. Israel’s first-ever appearance in the Winter Games was in 1994 in Lillehammer, France, when one Israeli athlete participated.

About 15 years ago, the Israeli Olympic Committee began applying demanding new

standards to limit its Olympics delegation to athletes with a legitimate shot at a medal. Consequently, the summer delegations have gotten smaller and the winter delegations have remained tiny.

One casualty this year was Israeli figure skater Tamar Katz. Although she had already qualified for the Olympics based on international competitions, the tougher standards of the Israel’s Olympic Committee required at top-14 finish in last month’s European championships in Estonia. Hampered by illness, she made a mistake in her routine and finished 21st.

A Facebook group called “Tamar Katz should be allowed to compete at the 2010 Olympics” had garnered more than 1,500 members as of Feb. 1.

Nate Bloom, who writes the syndicated Celebrity Jews column, contributed to this report.

Ben Harris

Ben Harris is a JTA correspondent.