Realizing a childhood, Michael Neuman, 26, from Miami Beach, Florida competed in a major sporting spectacle. With his kippah fixed firmly to his head, Neuman faced down a world class athlete to win a cool $25,000 as a contestant in the CBS show Million Dollar Mile, aired this past Saturday night.

Hosted by former NFL quarterback Tim Tebow, Million Dollar Mile is co-produced by NBA superstar Lebron James. Set on the streets of Los Angeles, Neuman joined contestants leaping across a maze of rotating walls, sprinting uphill, traversing a punishing trail of monkey bars above the streets of the city, and ziplining from 15 floor building. Given a two-minute head start, he was hunted down by elite athlete, Veejay Jones one of five elite ‘defenders’ on the show, whose mission is to prevent contestants from winning cash prizes. Jones is nicknamed ‘The Prodigy’ for his giant killing record in national obstacle course racing, netting his first title aged just 16.

A proud Orthodox Jew, Neuman kept his lead over three grueling obstacle events, as Jones narrowed the gap, eventually leaving just a hairline between them as they hauled themselves up a rope traversing a 15-floor building.

“It was totally exhilarating and an awesome experience,” Neuman told Aish.com. “I am super grateful to God for giving me this opportunity! I wanted the world to see a proud Jewish guy with a yarmulke not only take on the world’s best, but also do well.”

Most previous contenders had been caught by Jones during the first obstacle. “When I saw I was up against Veejay, I thought, ‘This is an insane task, he is the fastest defender on the show.'”

Fighting Pain

“As I was half way up the rope climb at the end, I was in so much pain, my arms were on fire, my heart was racing and I was struggling to breathe.” Then he looked down and Veejay Smith bearing up on him. “I was seconds from giving up.”

The sound of his name being chanted from some supporters gave Neuman his focus back. “I took a deep breath tried to stay calm, I do what I always do strengthen myself, I started talking to God and I carried on pulling myself up to the top.”

Competing in the obstacle course series, Spartan Race

Neuman was heaped with praise by his opponent, the current North American Spartan Race Champion, as the best contender he had yet to come up against on the show. Neuman believes that competing as a proud Orthodox Jew sets an example to other Jewish kids that they can overcome even the most ‘insane’ challenges in life. "That was the real victory."

‘Did he walk in here by mistake?’

Taking his kippah to Million Dollar Mile was never in question for Neuman, but he says it drew all kinds of reactions in the set. “People didn’t ask me right out, but I got the feeling that many of them were thinking ‘Who is this guy? Is he lost? Did he walk in here by mistake?'”

He also found it was a magnet for deeper conversations, even from the show’s host, NFL star Tim Tebow. “He came over and said hi, and we had a little God conversation before the filming.”

For five weeks ahead of the show, Neuman set himself a grueling regime, waking up at 5.30 AM, in the gym by 6 followed by a run, all before morning prayers at 7.30. After work, he returned to his workout, this time to a specialized gym for obstacle racers for hours of deadlifts, monkey bars, working on his agility, balance and endurance. He would unwind with an outdoor training session followed by daily ice baths to help reduce muscle inflammation.

Besides the physical training, he also had to think about how to keep his kippah from falling off during the race.

In a previous Spartan race, the gold standard U.S obstacle course, Neuman’s kippah had fallen off – not surprising the ups and downs of the course – but it cost him, losing a place on the podium as he returned to pick it up.

Competing on Million Dollar Mile

“I wanted the best chance of winning, but my kippah is incredibly important to me. It was also a question of kiddush Hashem (setting a positive image as a Jew). Everyone would notice the Jewish guy who didn’t care that his kippah had fallen off and kept on racing. After a thorough conversation with his rabbi, despite understanding he could complete the race if his kippah fell off, it wasn’t something he wanted to happen.

“In the end I secured it in place with dozens of bobby pins and no, it didn’t fall off!”

Choosing Shabbat over sports at the highest level

A gifted athlete who played basketball, baseball and soccer and who ran half marathons with his father growing up, Neuman placed his religious observance above pursuing a sports career.

“I always wanted to be a professional athlete but I always chose Shabbat over playing in competitive leagues which could have opened up opportunities there.”

Eventually qualifying as a psychologist, Neuman took his love of sports to the evenings and Sundays, and discovered the emerging, highly challenging world of obstacle racing.

“It’s the coolest sport, extremely physical,” he explained. “Fast and varied, with swimming, climbing, running. It requires a lot of endurance, upper body strength, agility and speed.”

He took part in his first Spartan race in his early 20s, and recently qualifying for the US National Obstacle Course Championships, however his introduction to the sport has a story of its own.

Winning $25K with host Tim Tebow

While studying at college in Miami, he stumbled across a talk about the Holocaust which left him shocked. “The whole room was in stunned that such a thing could have happened. Most of the students there had no idea about the Holocaust at all.” The speaker, herself a survivor, finished with an impassioned warning against ignorance, pointing to the steady rise of anti-Semitism in the US. Neuman felt compelled to act and asked what he could do to help.

Challenged to find a way of combating anti-Semitism in some way, the thought sat with him until he heard about an obstacle course race nearby. His answer to the challenge would be to enter the race, wearing his kippah.

“I knew I would meet such a different cross section of society, I wanted to challenge the stereotype.”

“At the race there were so many people staring at what was on my head. ‘A fit, strong guy with a yarmulke?’ people would say, ‘I didn’t know Orthodox people could do that.’

Since then he has always kept his kippah proudly on display in every race he takes part in.

“I’m so proud of being Jewish, and I feel I am playing my small part in creating a positive image for the Jewish People.” He added, “Wearing a kippah is always a responsibility, and I guess you feel that more strongly when the cameras are on you. The most important of all is just smiling and showing that you love life.”

An Angel in My Life

The immense positivity and excitement Michael has for life traces itself back to his family and upbringing, but also to another Holocaust survivor he met when he was 15.

“My mom decided to visit an old age home to sing some songs and when we arrived, one of the nurses said, ‘There’s a lady here who loves Judaism.” Her name was Fryda Ligator, she was in her 90s, an inspirational religious lady who had lost most of her family and spent the war years with her children in a Russian labor camp. “We sang, and she was so appreciative, I went back a number of times, and we connected.”

Michael with the survivor he heard speaking at college

In the months that followed, as Fryda began to share what she had been through, Michael left feeling energized by her positive attitude about life and Judaism.

A rabbi also imprisoned in the camp where she was during the wa, had agreed to teach her children Torah if she would pay him with extra food rations. Michael recalled, “I understood, the days her children got a Jewish education, she starved. To receive that message as a kid was very powerful.”

“I remember once complaining to her that I didn’t get a job I had applied for, and she looked at me and smiled. For someone who has been through hell and back, her message was there is no excuse not to smile every day. Our appreciation for life needs to constantly give us a reality check.”

“She was at the end of her life and I was a teenager. She said the world was too self-centered and spoke about the importance of giving to others. I didn’t have goals at that age, it’s something I think is true for many teenagers. She gave me the message that if you want to better yourself you have to start to work on yourself.

“I think she wondered if those years had much meaning. She was mourning her husband who had passed away not so long ago, and she had lost so much family during the Holocaust. I always wanted her to know that her life was a special one, and that even in those final years I learned so much from her.”

In the years since she passed away at the age of 98 in 2010, culminating in his appearance on Million Dollar Mile, Neuman has been striving to live with the wisdom she gave him, spreading positivity and gratitude, being proud of being Jewish and the value of personal responsibility.

“She was an angel sent to me, and she left the world a better place. I think she would have been proud of what I achieved on the show.”

Watch it at https://youtu.be/gRPlZL9Apc0 (US only).