Laying on a tiny sled, he hurtles head-first down an icy track at 80 miles per hour. His face rests precariously 2 inches from the ice. His sled has no brakes.

This is the adrenaline-charged sport of Skeleton.

Meet AJ Edelman, nicknamed the Hebrew Hammer – a 26-year-old graduate of MIT, and presumably the first Orthodox Jew ever to compete in the Olympic Games.

This week, Edelman realizes the culmination of a dream by representing the State of Israel as one of only 30 skeleton sledders to compete in the 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea.

Improbable Journey

Edelman's improbable journey to the Olympic stage began in Brookline, Massachusetts. There his upbringing was a blend of Jewish observance, high academic achievement, and competitive athletics.

At age 3, AJ started his athletic career as a hockey goalie. He continued to excel in the sport throughout his years at Orthodox day school, and in high school was offered the opportunity to play at the highest competitive level. AJ turned it down, opting to devote more focus to his Jewish studies. (AJ later played at the college level for MIT, leading them to two divisional championships. The team created their schedule around his Shabbat observance.)

AJ's life changed in 2006 when he visited Israel during the Second Lebanon War. He felt deeply attached and placed aliyah on his list of life goals. Following high school, AJ returned to spend a gap year in Israel, studying at the Lev HaTorah yeshiva in Ramat Beit Shemesh.

After graduating MIT with a degree in Mechanical Engineering, AJ was hired by software giant Oracle. Life continued, but the dream of becoming a world-class athlete stayed lodged in his brain.

AJ's big "a-ha moment" came in 2013 when he saw a video of Olympic sledders. Intrigued, he visited a practice facility and took a skeleton run that he describes as "like a rollercoaster without seatbelts." A self-proclaimed "adrenaline junkie," AJ was immediately hooked. 

He set a goal for the Olympics but was discouraged following his first trial run in Lake Placid:

The scouting report Israel received on me was terrible. Let's just say they were told, and I quote "he will never be a serious contender in this sport." 

I didn't care – that only made me want to make the impossible possible. So March 14, 2014, my 23rd birthday, I wrote down on a piece of paper 2,884 –the amount of days until 2022's opening ceremonies.

At my first competition in November, 2014 I overheard someone say that I was so bad at sprinting (critical to our sport), that I would be gone within 2 years, and certainly in 4.

So I took out the paper I had written 2,884 on, crossed that number out, and wrote 1,442. 

Thus began AJ's journey to qualify for the 2018 Winter OIympics.

He quit his cushy job at Oracle and kicked his athletic ambition into full-time overdrive. He met with the Israeli Olympic Committee in Tel Aviv and got the green light to place the Israeli flag on his racing suit. He made aliyah and now considers Israel "home."

Climbing the Ranks

AJ has spent the last three years training non-stop, living at winter sports facilities in the United States and Canada. To cover the costs of training, travel, and competition fees, AJ set up a 501c3 nonprofit and turned to crowdfunding. His video pitch quoted the Talmudic sage Hillel: "If not now, when?"

By all measures, Skeleton is one of the most exhilarating and death-defying events of the Winter Olympics. (Considered for many years too dangerous, it was adopted as an Olympic sport only in 2002.) Athletes start off with a sprint, leap onto their small sled headfirst, then tuck in to fly down the icy track at breakneck speed.

Only the torso fits atop the small sled, and steering is achieved with slight shifts of body weight. The minute-long run has dozens of turns that must be navigated with absolute precision. AJ comes around those turns at 5Gs, the force experienced by astronauts (meaning that his 8-pound head weighs 40 pounds). One wrong move could be lethal.

None of this phases AJ who, as a hockey goalie, took slapshots to the throat.

In pursuit of his goal, AJ's clear focus and determination has turned dream into reality. He has climbed steadily in world rankings, winning medals at two international competitions, including the 2018 North American Cup. 

AJ's parents – an attorney and a doctor – avoid watching him compete, worried that he'll join the list of ill-fated skeleton sledders who have crashed at 80 mph with nothing but a helmet and some padding to protect.

However, at the Olympics in PyeongChang, AJ is proudly accompanied by his father, Elazer Edelman, a world-renowned scientist who makes his own Kiddush Hashem teaching both engineering at MIT and cardiology at Harvard Medical School. (see TedTalk with kippah)

Jewish Ambassador

AJ is brimming with pride in this opportunity to represent Israel on the world stage. He sees himself as an ambassador for the Jewish people, hoping to reshape the many misperceptions about Jews and Israel.

AJ walks around at international competitions with a kippah on his head. Many other athletes have never met a Jew, and certainly not a religious Jew. He does not travel or train on Shabbat, and eats only kosher food (travelling with canned vegetables and smoked salmon).

AJ acts as a cantor on the High Holidays, and enjoys leading prayer services when he travels to various communities for competitions and training.

Now all those years of hard work and discipline come to a head February 15-16 at the men's 2018 Olympic Skeleton competition. AJ has no expectation of winning a medal, but just making it this far places him among the world's elites.

AJ will stand at the starting gate and put on his gloves that read: Am Yisrael Chai - "the Jewish nation lives." Then, as before every skeleton run, he will recite from King David's Psalm 121: "I look toward the mountains [and ask]: From where will my help come?", before heading down the icy mountain track.

On Friday afternoon, as the competition ends, AJ will head back to the Olympic Village. He'll remove his Star of David racing suit and get ready for Shabbat. He'll light candles and make Kiddush for anyone who wants to join AJ Edelman's Jewish Olympic moment.

UPDATE: With the results now in, AJ performed as well as expected, hurtling down the mile-long track in 52.35 seconds. However, it was not enough to get him into the "medal round" of competition. 

Will AJ be back competing at the 2020 Olympics? He says:

It seems unfair to my future family to mortgage their future on it. I achieved what I was looking for – to prove to our people that an impossible task was possible. Now it is time to help spread that message, and help others start their own journeys.