Jillian Schwartz has already competed at the Olympics albeit for a different country. She represented USA in pole vault at the 2004 Olympics. Fast forward four years and she missed qualifying for the Beijing Games. At the crossroads, competing in the 2009 Maccabiah Games changed everything. Schwartz became eligible to represent Israel which she will do so in London. The former Duke student will be Israel’s only female representative in track and field.

When did you start in your sport?
I started in track and field in junior high school when I was about 13 years old, but did not start pole vaulting until I was 19 years old when I was in college.

How did you become a pole-vaulter?
Pole vaulting always looked like fun to me, so once women were allowed to do it, I asked my coach if I could try. Coming from a sprinting and gymnastics background, it was a good fit for me.

How did your commitment to sports change your childhood?
I grew up doing gymnastics since the age of about 4 and through that was taught commitment and discipline. I spent a lot of hours in the gym and it kept me focused not only on sports, but also on my school work.

What is your first memory of the Olympics?
My first memory of watching the Olympics is probably watching the 1996 US Women’s Gymnastics Team. Gymnastics is still one of my favorite sports to watch.

When did you know you wanted to be in the Olympics?
You know, I was not one of those kids who said at a young age that I wanted to be an Olympian. However, I always wanted to be successful at whatever I did, whether it was school or sports. The funny thing is that in my high school yearbook, I was voted most likely to be in the Olympics – but at that point I had never even tried the event that I ended up going to the Olympics for (pole vault).

As a member of TeamUSA, how was the lead-up to the Athens Games different to what you’re experiencing now?
My lead up training-wise has not been too different. The biggest difference is really the team size. Israel’s team is much smaller which makes for a more intimate team. We had some meetings last week and it was really nice to get to meet everyone on the team!

How did it feel not to be at Beijing?
Missing the Beijing Olympics was a big disappointment. As a whole, 2008 was a very good season for me, but of course those good results were overshadowed by not going to the Olympics. However, it served as motivation for me in the future.

You plan to meet Coach K at the Games? Were you a Cameron Crazy?
I was definitely a Cameron Crazy at Duke – I camped out for 6 weeks during my freshman year to get into the Duke-UNC game! I’ve met Coach K before and it would be great to see him again in London.

Jillian Schwartz and Donald Sanford

How has your connection to Israel changed or been impacted as a result of competing for it?
My connection to Israel has changed a lot since I began competing for it. I definitely feel a lot closer to my heritage and have also met so many amazing people along the way.

What was your biggest challenge prior to getting to the Olympics?
The biggest challenge I have faced over the last couple years is how to stay healthy in my training. At a high level, an athlete is always pushing their body and walking a fine line between injury and health. So far this outdoor season, I have been able to stay healthy and hope to jump my highest in London.

How are you finding the cultural differences in Israel in terms of both sport and general life?
In the US, the NFL and MBA (football and baseball) are two of the biggest sports. Obviously these are not really present in Israel so that is a major difference right there. As far as general life goes, I have found most people to be very straight forward and there is really no political correctness like there is in the states, but I really enjoy this because you always know exactly where you stand!

Is there anything about sport in Israel that you wish you could fix?
I actually think that the Olympic Committee and Athletics Federation are doing good things to try to get more youth involved in sports in Israel. I think that this will produce good changes!

Besides track and field, what sports at the Olympics do you like to watch?
My favorite sport to watch (probably even more than track) is gymnastics.

Sport has given you many opportunities and experiences that otherwise you would never had had – what would you say to Israeli kids about sport and what it can give them? Any advice?

I think the most important things in sports are to give 100% of your effort and to have fun. Not everyone who competes in sports will necessarily become an Olympian, but sports can definitely lead to many other opportunities such as college scholarships. Plus, you always get to meet great people in sports!

How does it feel to be an Olympian?
I feel honored to be an Olympian and compete against the top athletes in the world. It’s amazing to be involved with a competition with such amazing history.

What do you want to do post-athletics?
I’m not totally sure yet!

We will be cheering for you Jillian as you go for the gold!

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