The last time Breeck Kroitor went to the JCC Maccabi Games, he came home with more than just the four medals he captured in the pool.
Two years removed from his success in Denver, the 16-year-old member of the Manitoba Bisons Swim Club is heading back into the Maccabi waters, looking to duplicate the success -- and the experience -- he had the last time out.
"I wanted to go again, just because it was such a great time," said Kroitor, who specializes in the 50-metre freestyle.
"It was just a new environment. I'm used to competing against kids from Saskatchewan or Manitoba, but when I went to the games, I was against kids from all over the world -- the U.S., Mexico, United Kingdom.
"It was probably one of the best weeks of my life. That's why I'm going back."
The JCC Maccabi Games are a week-long, multi-sport competition that welcomes thousands of Jewish teenage athletes from around the world. Delegations from throughout North America, Europe and Israel not only test their physical skills, but also participate in a cultural appreciation of Jewish values and the Jewish community.
The 2012 games will be held in Houston, Memphis and New York.
Kroitor is one of four Manitobans going to the event in Houston, Aug. 5 to 10. Anna Zaifman (tennis) and Daniel Rafaelov (basketball) are also heading to Texas, as is Shiri Berkowitz, a Gray Academy student who's making her second straight appearance at the games.
With such a small group, the athletes will blend into another delegation from Canada. (Details were still being ironed out last week.) Last year, Berkowitz joined the Edmonton contingent, only to get to Springfield, Mass., and discover she'd be playing basketball with a New York-based team.
"No practice time, just go play," she said with a laugh. "It was interesting."
And that was OK, the 15-year-old added, as court time is almost secondary to the social component at Maccabi.
"You play and you're trying to win, but as soon as the game is over, you're having lunch with the team you just played," Berkowitz said.
"We're all there for the same reason: To compete against other Jewish kids and meet other people."
The Rady Jewish Community Centre provides administrative support for the competitors, much as the Canadian Olympic Committee does for those heading to the Summer or Winter Games. They handle the paperwork and logistical concerns for the athletes and families and help with some of the fundraising needed to participate.
Athletes are looking at costs of $1,800 to $2,200 for the games, said Mark Spencer, director of fitness and health at the Rady JCC.
"Sometimes the individual athletes have taken the initiative themselves," he said.
"Some have organized socials and garage sales, things like that, to help raise money. The problem with that is that it takes time away from the court or the field, which is something no one wants.
"The fundraising and individual donations are very important," Spencer continued.
"These athletes are representing Winnipeg and because there is a relatively small delegation of Canadians going each year, to a certain degree the kids represent Canada, as well."
While the Maccabi Games are relatively accessible for sporty Jewish teens in Manitoba, it's the next level that is the desired destination for many of the athletes.
The Maccabiah Games are held every four years in Israel and are open to all Jewish people around the world and Israeli citizens. The games are the second-largest multi-sport event in the world, trailing only the Olympics in terms of participation numbers, and the cost to compete in Israel is substantially more (Spencer estimates the price at $8,000) and most sports have qualifying standards.
At the 2009 Maccabiah Games, 12,000 athletes from 54 countries participated in 31 sports.
Both Kroitor and Berkowitz weren't sure if they would make it to the Maccabiah next year (there is a junior division, one of three different age classifications), but they do want to attend the games at some point.
"I was just thinking about going," Kroitor said last week.
"To compete in the Maccabiah Games would be pretty special. It has been on my mind."