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Wisconsin trio brings home gold medals, fond memories

By Austin Greenberg
of The Chronicle staff

January 11th, 2008

Three Wisconsin athletes turned the recently completed Pan American Maccabi Games in Buenos Aires, Argentina into their own personal gold mine.

Competing in three different sports, the trio won four gold medals and came home with many new friends and unforgettable memories.

“Obviously we were going down there to have a great time and meet new people,” said David Merkow, who competed in the open division (ages 18 and up) golf competition, “but I don’t go to golf tournaments to have a good time. Winning is fun.”

This was the first Maccabi games for all three, and they had no idea what level of competition they would be facing in Argentina.

Still, they were not wanting for confidence. “When I saw the team we had, I knew we were going to win,” said Blake Pindyck, who competed in the junior division (ages 15-19) baseball competition. (This was the only level of competition for baseball at these games.)

Organized by the Maccabi World Union, the Pan American Maccabi Games are a quadrennial, Olympic-styled athletic competition. More than 4,000 Jewish athletes from the Americas, Israel, Australia and United Kingdom competed in dozens of sports over a 10-day period ending Jan. 2, 2008.

These games are not to be confused with the Maccabiah games, held in Israel every four years after an Olympic year, which bring athletes from across the globe together for one competition.

Finding family

Merkow, 22, was one of the most accomplished athletes on the U.S. team. He was a state champion and two-time Classic 8 Conference Player of the Year at Arrowhead Union High School in Hartland, where he was an extreme minority.

“I used to tell people when I went there,” recalled Merkow, “that out of 2,500 students, there are two other Jews at Arrowhead. And one of them is my brother.”

From there, Merkow went on to Northwestern University where he was named the 2006 Big Ten Player of the Year and his composite score of 74.27 ranks sixth in Northwestern golf history.

In the team competition at the Pan Am Games, Merkow led the U.S. squad to a 30-stroke win over the second place Argentine team.

The individual competition was more difficult, however, and it came down to the last round between Merkow and a 19-year-old Mexican named Eric Mazjner.

Mazjner, down by two, birdied the first three holes in the final round. Merkow proved he was up to the task, however, by firing a 6 under par 67 en route to his second gold medal of the games.

The golf tournament was not the only memorable part of the trip for Merkow, however. When he informed his grandmother that he would be going to Buenos Aires, she told him that he has family in that city.
Merkow met his cousins, the Buznicks, for the first time as a result of the Maccabi games.

He ate a Shabbat meal at their home, attended services with them, and felt an immediate bond with the Argentinian family.

“It was absolutely unbelievable. It could not have been more special,” said Merkow. The Buznick family came to watch him play, and he showed his appreciation with an emotional gift.

“I gave them one of my gold medals,” Merkow said. “It was something I really, really wanted to do … for them to remember me by.”

Merkow admitted that although he should not have, he did think about the gesture while he was playing the last couple rounds of the tournament, hoping that in the end he would be able to share his victory with them.

And he’s not planning that gold medal to be his last victory. Though Merkow did not qualify for the 2008 PGA Tour, he is now in Florida attempting to qualify for the Hooters Tour, which is the top mini-tour in professional golf.

Though he is yet to win his first purse as a golfer, Merkow is confident he will achieve his goal. And when he does, he does not plan on hiding his religion.

“It does drive me,” Merkow said of his Judaism. “When I make it on [the PGA] Tour, I’d like it to be known that I’m Jewish. Whether it’s wearing my Star of David [around his neck], or having a Chai on my [golf] bag, I want to show that there are good Jewish athletes.”

Former Wave

Going into the competition, soccer player Adam Riesz was motivated by the fact that, “in men’s soccer, U.S. teams had never done better than silver,” he said.

And that first gold medal did not come easy.

After opening the tournament with a 4-0 rout of Columbia, the U.S. team lost 3-0 to Argentina in a game marred by injury and illness.

The Argentine team lost midfielder Ari Kaplan to a knee injury in the first half, while seven U.S. players, including Riesz, suffered from food poisoning.

The fact that the game was played in sweltering 100-degree heat could not have helped the ailing U.S. in that game.

The team recovered, however, and secured a spot in the semifinals by scoring four second half goals en route to a 5-0 trouncing of traditional powerhouse Chile.

After beating Mexico 3-2 on penalty kicks, the U.S. knocked off Argentina 2-0 for the team’s first gold medal in the open division of men’s soccer in Maccabi history.

At 30, Adam Riesz was the elder statesman of the team. A former Whitefish Bay High School Blue Duke, Riesz received a full scholarship to play soccer at UW-Parkside.

Over his collegiate career, Riesz was twice honored as an all-league selection in the Great Lakes Valley Conference and, in 1999, was both a first team all-American and the GLVC Academic Player of the Year.

Following graduation, Riesz was drafted in the first round of the Major Indoor Soccer League draft by the Milwaukee Wave. Riesz played for the 2000-01 MISL champion Wave, and later for the Milwaukee Wave United, before retiring to pursue a more profitable career.

Riesz has continued to play amateur soccer and, as a member of the Milwaukee Bavarian Soccer Club, won the prestigious National Amateur Cup Championship three consecutive years, from 2001-03.

Now an Associate/Financial Consultant for Goldman Sachs in Chicago, Reisz considers the Pan Am games a combination of fun and success. “I met a lot of people who I consider great friends. Our team had great camaraderie. And to come out winning it … it was a phenomenal experience,” he said.

Walk-off magic

Perhaps the games’ most electrifying finale was delivered by University School senior Blake Pindyck, who patrolled left field and batted clean up for the U.S. baseball team.

Pindyck, who will be playing baseball for Emory University next fall, led the U.S. team to a 5-0 record in the tournament. The victory was not easy, however.

In the gold medal game versus Argentina, the U.S. lost a two-run lead in the ninth inning, and then surrendered another run in the tenth. The Americans then had just three outs to score at least one run, or accept the silver medal.

With the bases loaded and one out, Pindyck came to the plate, the game depending on his performance. After falling behind with two strikes, he didn’t swing at the next three pitches.

Then the pitcher “threw me a knuckleball on the inner half [of the plate], and I hit a double over the left fielder’s head” to score the game winning runs.

The American team bolted out of the dugout and tackled him on the field to celebrate the victory.

“The whole experience was amazing,” said Pindyck. “The memories I have from it, from marching into the stadium during the opening ceremonies with 495 teammates, all wearing blue and white USA warm-ups, to getting mobbed by my teammates, are unbelievable.”

Pindyck said that his team had grown incredibly close, and he also became good friends with a few of the Argentine baseball players. “It was hard to say goodbye to them,” he said.

(For a story on Pindyck, see the June 16, 2007 Chronicle.)
The games were held under tight security. Argentina, which boasts a Jewish population of 200,000 (the largest in Latin America), has a long history of anti-Semitism. The games did not have any reported incidents.