WATERBURY, Conn. (AP) — Thousands of athletes begin the final steps of an amazing journey this week as they experience the thrills of competing for their countries on the Olympic stage.
Waterbury's Seth Mahler has found a more rewarding way to take that experience a step further.
While the 24-year-old won't be competing in the Olympics, he recently took part in something that could ultimately prove to be equally as challenging and perhaps more fulfilling. He helped start the building a sport in his homeland by taking it to the international level with an incredible amount of success and then taking it back to the youth fields to inspire a new generation.
Mahler learned to play lacrosse locally at St. Margaret's-McTernan School and The Gunnery, then took his knowledge and passion for the sport to Amsterdam, the Netherlands, where he played for the inaugural Israel national team.
"It was very surreal to go to a country that had never really seen or heard of lacrosse and represent them as a people on a global landscape," said Mahler, who spent six weeks playing for and coaching the national team. "It was an honor to be part of the inaugural team. It was spectacular. It was jaw-dropping. It was just a great overall experience."
Mahler was one of 43 players given the opportunity to introduce the sport of lacrosse to Israel by being part of the national team. The team practiced in Israel, played a few exhibition games there, then went to Amsterdam and split into two squads. One played in the European Championships and another played in an international festival.
Israel finished eighth in the European Championships, while Mahler's squad played in 14 games and won the international festival against more than 20 teams.
"It was an amazing experience because it was a whole other realm of competition and level of play that very few players get to experience," Mahler said. "There was a U.S. team, there was a global team comprised of players from all over the world and there were club teams from Germany, England, the Netherlands and France. It was surreal to play at that level."
Scott Neiss, the director of the Israel Lacrosse Association, said that Mahler, who played midfield for four years at Whittier College in California, is a talented player with enough skills to be part of the program as it moves forward with the goal of playing in the 2014 World Games in Denver. Neiss, however, invited him to be part of the team without even seeing him play.
Mahler saw stories in several lacrosse magazines about the fact that Israel was building a national program and seeking recognition from the Federation of International Lacrosse. He e-mailed Neiss to inquire about whether there might be a place for him.
"We were really looking for people with good character who had coaching ability and were saying the right things, not that they wanted to play for the national team but that they wanted to build the sport in Israel," Neiss said. "Seth stood out as someone who was already giving back to the lacrosse community in California, where the sport really isn't that developed. The way he was putting so much time into high school and middle school programs there, we saw a lot of parallels to our situation here."
Mahler, who now lives in California, led his Beckham (Calif.) High team to a 15-4 record this spring in his first season as a varsity coach. He also coaches U15, U13 and U11 club teams in the fall, winter and summer as the co-director of a middle school program.
One of the vital roles of the Israel national team was to return to Israel for two weeks after the Amsterdam games and hold youth clinics for close to 1,000 kids across the country. Mahler distinguished himself both as a player and a teacher.
"He showed us that he really got it, saying and doing all the right things from the start," Neiss said. "He was someone who exhibited all the ideals we wanted in the program, and once we got him here, we knew right away he was someone we wanted in our program long-term."
Mahler said he has no scheduled trips to return to Israel, but he would definitely like to go back this coming winter to coach and again in the summer to play if lacrosse can be included in the Macabi Games, a competition held in Israel every four years for athletes of Jewish descent from around the world.
Neiss has also talked to him about taking up residence in Israel to help build the sport of lacrosse there. Mahler said it is definitely a possibility in the future because it is almost surreal to have the opportunity to be part of building a program from the start in his homeland.
"We want to make lacrosse the national sport of Israel," Neiss said. "It might take 20 years. It might take 30, but we have a compelling product. We believe it is the best sport in the world, and we believe we can build something great and be pretty good at it in Israel. Seth can definitely be part of that."
Information from: Republican-American, http://www.rep-am.com