Ellie Gottdenker is a freshman at Washington University majoring in philosophy-neuroscience-psychology and is also a member of the WashU triathlon club. Gottdenker was recently selected to compete in the 2017 Maccabiah Games, commonly referred to as the "Jewish Olympics," set to take place this summer in Israel. She agreed to do a Q&A with WashU Rec.
First off, how did you first get involved in the sport, and also the WashU Tri Team?
I got involved in triathlons for fun, as a way to supplement all of the swimming I was doing. When I swam competitively in high school, we usually took a few weeks off at the end of August and I filled that time with triathlon stuff! I actually got involved in the WashU Tri Team for a similar reason — I was on the WashU varsity swim team for about a month, and when I decided not to pursue that avenue, I needed a way to fill my time and stay in shape!
Triathlons are notoriously grueling endeavors. What do you like about the sport?
I love being able to combine three different forms of exercise. After swimming, one thing I was most looking forward to was getting to work out in ways that weren't limited to the pool and the weight room. Training for a triathlon, almost anything you do in the gym (within reason) will help you prepare in some way or another.
How many triathlons have you competed in?
I've competed in four! Three in high school and one at WashU.
Which do you consider to be your strongest discipline? Also, which do you like the most, and why?
Definitely the swim, on both fronts! I have by far the strongest background in swimming, and I also find it the most soothing, in addition to being the easiest of the three sports for me to complete.
Which aspect of the sport do you enjoy more — training or competing?
I think I enjoy both equally. For me, doing triathlons is absolutely a process, and both training and competing are integral to the process. I love the grind of going for a long workout session, but I also love the excitement and adrenaline that comes with race day.
Talk about your training schedule and how you balance it with your academic schedule.
Personally, school has always come first for me. This used to sabotage my attempts at training, but now I know that I actually do better in school (am more focused when completing assignments and studying for tests) if I've already fit in a workout that day. I generally try to practice each sport at least twice a week, and then lift once a week. Having said that, I also really value balance. So, if I have extra schoolwork one week I might cut out a workout or two, and I also love the exercise classes at WashU so I often use a spin class as a "bike day" or an energy sculpt class to help supplement the cardiovascular component of running. I really just like to mix it up as much as possible.
What was the driving force behind your decision to try to compete in the Maccabiah Games? Describe the entry or qualifying process.
The driving force behind applying for Maccabiah really stems from my past experience with JCC and European Maccabi Games. I competed for the Greater Washington Team for five years with JCC Maccabi as a swimmer, and represented Team USA for the first time in 2015 in Berlin, also as a swimmer. The experiences I had there were invaluable, and have shaped my life in so many ways. I actually had kind of an unusual application process—I applied initially as a swimmer, and then ended up changing my application last minute to triathlon when it became apparent that I was much more involved in that area than I was in swimming. I'm not sure how they select the team, to be honest, I just know that I wrote a few essays, submitted my times from previous races, and listed my grades along with some references. It was kind of like submitting a college application!
Describe the feeling when you found out you were selected to compete. How big of an honor was this for you personally?
I'm going to answer this question by telling you about the moment that my mind immediately flashed back to when I got the call that I'd been accepted. When I got the call saying I had been selected to represent the United States of America's swim team for the 2015 European Maccabi Games in Berlin, Germany along with twelve other Jewish-American athletes, I was completely overcome by emotion. The importance, the significance of the journey I was about to embark upon was enormous; something I couldn't even fully conceptualize but knew would be somehow transformative. Throughout my entire life, I have never felt more proud to be Jewish than when I marched into the Olympic stadium in Berlin that was built by the Nazis for the 1936 Olympic Games, holding an American flag in one hand and an Israeli flag in the other. The Israeli team carried a banner that read "We are still here." Walking into a stadium built by a regime founded to wipe out the Jewish population was somber. There was a heaviness, a profound sadness in the history that permeated the humid August evening. However, there was an incredible atmosphere of hope and perseverance in the air—we were marching into that stadium from all over the world, brought together by the very thing that we were expelled for years ago: our Judaism. I think that all of these emotions flashed through my mind when I got the call—to say that this is an honor would be a huge understatement. I am beyond excited for this summer.
What are you looking forward to most about the Games?
Wow, this is a hard question to answer because I'm really excited for everything! But I guess there are three main elements. First, the opportunity to travel around Israel! I've been there once before, but it's been several years so I don't remember much. Second, I am excited for the opening ceremonies. Given my experience in Berlin, I guess my bar is set pretty high, but something tells me that I won't be disappointed. Third, I can't wait to compete! The swim portion of the competition will actually be in the Sea of Galilee in Tiberius (a few hours' drive outside of Tel Aviv), and I think that's going to be pretty special.
What are your expectations for the event?
I honestly don't have many personal expectations—I think my main goal right now is to finish, and to represent my team well! Going into the European Games, I put quite a bit of pressure on myself to medal because I knew it was feasible. Not that it isn't this time around (I actually am pretty unaware of where I stand in relation to the other triathletes competing), but my goal for Israel is just to soak up the entire experience.