Former Illini wrestler Durlacher training for Maccabiah Games, 2012 Olympics

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — More than 7,000 Jewish athletes will be in Israel for the opening ceremony of the 2009 Maccabiah Games on July 13.

This year, the United States delegation will not only be highlighted by swimmer Jason Lezak— who anchored the 4×100-meter freestyle relay at the 2008 Olympic Games — but also by former Illinois wrestler, Lindsey Durlacher.

Durlacher, a 1997 graduate, will be among those competing in the world’s third largest sporting event.

The Buffalo Grove, Ill., native will participate in two weeks of competition and cultural immersion in Israel.

“It’s kind of like a mini-Olympics for Jewish people,” Durlacher said. “Every four years they give an opportunity to the great Jewish athletes in the world to come together and compete in their respective sports and learn a little bit about their religion.”

Durlacher has taken part in the Maccabiah Games four times previously, which typically fall one year after the Summer Olympic Games. At the 2005 Maccabiah Games, Durlacher was honored with leading his team off the plane and carrying the American flag.

“I’ve won gold every time, so I expect gold this time,” Durlacher said, as he prepares to make his fifth journey to Israel.

The Maccabiah Games have been held in what is now Israel since 1932, and expanded when the diaspora of Jews fled to Israel. It is now the third largest sporting event in the world, drawing athletes from more than 50 countries, including 900 athletes from the U.S.

One of the main reasons for such high participation is that the Games are unlike any other sporting event. They encourage Jewish pride and strengthen religious and cultural bonds among the athletes.

“I’m identifying with my people, and I’m supporting the state of Israel,” Durlacher said.

Durlacher said in the past, the U.S. delegation has benefited from having the opportunity to visit more religious sites than other delegations, including the Dead Sea and Masada.

“They educate you at the same time on how the country was formed, your religion and, you know, solidarity — getting all of the Jewish athletes together in a big spectacle to try to solidify with the country of Israel,” Durlacher said.

Meanwhile, new current head coach and former assistant coach Jim Heffernan still checks in with Durlacher about once a month. Heffernan, who wrestled alongside him for one year at Illinois, believes Durlacher is a different competitor now than when he first stepped on the mat in Champaign.

“He’s progressed leaps and bounds from when he came in to when he left,” Heffernan said. “He’s been in the top three of his weight class for the last several years. I think he has a very high set of goals, and I think from that standpoint he can be a role model.”

Following graduation, Durlacher stayed in Champaign for one year to coach and begin training for his international career. He then went to coach at Northwestern for a few years, and currently lives in Colorado Springs, Colo., where he trains at the Olympic Training Center.

Durlacher was one of the favorites to make the 2008 U.S. Olympic Wrestling team, but missed qualifying by one match. Heading into the U.S. Olympic Trials, he had the No.1 ranking, but finished third due to one bad match, just missing out on competing in Beijing.

“He hates to lose,” Heffernan said. “That’s the way he’s always been, even when he was a freshman.”

Despite the disappointment after trials, Durlacher has since set his sights on competing at the 2012 Olympic Games in London.

“The margin for error is very small, but I think he has a good chance,” Heffernan said about making the team in 2012.

Although Durlacher is traveling around the world for competitions, he still makes time to catch up with the Illinois wrestling program.

“I try to get back every summer to help out with summer camps,” Durlacher said. “I try to catch a meet when I can.”

But for the month of July, the veteran wrestler just wants to soak in every minute he gets to spend with his fellow Jewish athletes in the land of his people.

“It’s a special time,” Durlacher said. “Not only do you get to take part in the sport that you love, but you get to educate yourself on the great state of Israel and all of its other many aspects of what they’ve done with their country.”