About this time seven years ago, pole vaulter Jillian Schwartz was walking into the Olympic Stadium in Maroussi, Greece, clad in a navy jacket and hat, both emblazoned with the five Olympic rings and three big letters: USA. She joined 600-plus American teammates in chanting those three letters as they waved to a crowd of more than 70,000.
About this time next year, Schwartz hopes to be walking in the opening ceremonies once again, only this time she won't be wearing the red, white and blue. Schwartz, who is half Jewish, became an Israeli citizen last year and began competing for the blue and white in January of this year.
The Illinois native and 2001 Duke graduate caught the eye of Israeli athletic officials after winning the gold medal at both the 2009 Israeli championships and the 2009 Maccabiah Games, an international Jewish athletic event held in Israel every four years. When Schwartz received an invite to leave the U.S. team and vault for Israel, the decision was an easy one.
"The U.S. is so stacked [at pole vault], I really wanted to give myself a better chance to make the Olympics again," Schwartz told me. "If I just make the qualifying [height] standards I'll get [to London]. There just aren't very many pole vaulters in Israel and they aren't jumping as high."
Schwartz also liked the idea of being a big fish in a small pond again. She was one of just five Israeli athletes who hit the qualifying standard to compete in last month's world track and field championships in Daegu, South Korea. The U.S. team sent 155.
"In Israel, there is pressure from the federation and your club, so if you don't jump well you feel like you are letting other people down," Schwartz told the Chicago Tribune in August. "In the U.S., you feel like nobody cares. It's nice how appreciative Israelis are of [top] athletes."
Changing country allegiance was a fairly simple process for Schwartz; she first had to provide a birth certificate and a letter from a rabbi certifying that she is Jewish. She filled out some paperwork to become a citizen and then Israeli officials filled out paperwork to switch her allegiance within the International Association of Athletics Federation. Because the U.S. team granted her a release, she had to sit out only one year before she could vault for her new country in international team events.
What a difference a day makes
In 2004, Schwartz finished second in the Olympic trials to beat out a handful of other competitive jumpers and make the U.S. team. This time around she will mainly be competing with herself. Already the Israeli record holder both indoors and outdoors at 4.6 meters (15 feet), she'll almost certainly make the team simply by hitting the qualifying marks.
On April 30 of this year, Schwartz cleared the A standard Olympic qualification height of 4.50 meters/14-9 at the Israeli club championships in Tel Aviv. Problem is, the qualifying period didn't begin until May 1 -- just one day later.
She has until July 2 of 2012 to hit the A mark or she must clear the B standard of 4.40/14-4 and finish in the top 16 at the 2012 indoor world championships in Istanbul. Schwartz doesn't think that will be necessary.
"Last year I jumped higher than [the A mark] in just about every meet," she explained, "but this year's been a bit injury plagued and hasn't been that great. I'm hoping to get over that so next year will be better."
Injuries have been an issue for Schwartz over the past few years. She was suffering from a stress fracture in her leg when she jumped a disappointing height of 4.30/14-1 in the Athens Olympics. She has also struggled with back problems, and a foot injury last winter kept her out for nearly two months.
Just last month a torn hamstring tendon resulted in a poor showing at worlds, her last meet of the season. She jumped just 4.25/13-9, falling well short of the qualifying mark she'd hoped to hit.
Schwartz is in her offseason now -- four to six weeks without any training at all -- and hopes the rest will do her hamstring good and help her start next season pain free. She wants to get to London feeling 100 percent because, this time around, her goals go beyond just competing.
"It isn't about just making it there, I definitely wanna be able to go and give it my best," she said. "I'm kind of going with the assumption that I'll make the team, so my main goal will actually be to make the final."
While some may question Schwartz's decision to compete for a nation other than her native U.S., Schwartz sees her switch to Israel as both a professional move and an emotional one. "The main thing is that [pole vaulting] is my profession, so ultimately it was a business decision," she said. "At this point in my career, I believe the switch puts me in a better position to succeed in my event and also puts me in a better place financially."
On a personal note, her kinship with Israel is founded in a deeper, more spiritual connection. "During Hanukkah I immediately felt at home with having the same traditions and customs of the holiday," she said. "Growing up so far away from [Israel], yet having those things in common was a great feeling."
And if she finds herself standing on the runway with just one more height to clear for the gold medal, will she be sad she's not winning it for the USA?
"Um ... not really," she said with a laugh. "If I won the gold medal that'd be pretty frickin' cool. I'd be so excited either way, I wouldn't care who it was for."