While we’re all still on a high from the big Bears’ win this weekend, let’s talk rugby. Recently, The Great Rabbino caught up with Shawn Lipman, arguably the greatest Jewish rugby player of all time. That's right rugby. If you haven't played or seen rugby you should. It is brutal. Real tough athletes who lay it all on the line. Thank you to my correspondent Rabbi Erez Sherman for setting this up.
Tell us a little bit about yourself?
I was born in Johannesburg, South Africa and developed a love for rugby, the national pastime, at a young age. Rugby was not a sport that was generally played by Jews, but I loved it.
I joined Wits University Rugby Club at the Under 20 level in 1983 on a Rugby scholarship, from Sandringham High School, where I was a first team (varsity) player, having received full colors (awarded to selected best players) in Rugby. I represented Transvaal Under 20s (Provincial All Stars, highest level in South Africa for my age group) whilst playing at university, and also South Africa in the Maccabiah Games in 1985.
I emigrated to the United States at the end of 1985 and joined the Santa Monica Rugby Club where I immediately made lifelong friends. Through my selection to the regional All Star teams, I was selected to play on the US National Team in 1988, earning my first cap (full international) against Canada, who we beat for the first time in many attempts. I traveled all over the world with the US National Team and represented the United States in the 1991 Rugby World Cup in England, the third largest sporting event in the world. I represented the US team in over 20 international matches, including nine test matches, and was fortunate enough to play against some of the best national teams and players in the world, including the New Zealand All Blacks, England and France.
I played in five World Maccabiah Games (held every four years in Israel) as a player, having captained the US team in 1993 and 1997, and represented the US in 1989 and South Africa in 1985. I was selected as MVP of the Maccabiah Games Rugby Event in 1989, 1993, and 1997. In the Maccabiah competition, we won gold in 1985; bronze in 1989; silver in 1993 and gold in 1997 (the first time South Africa did not win the tournament). The biggest honor was being elected as the Flag Bearer for the entire US delegation in 1997. Unfortunately it was marred by a bridge collapse at the opening ceremony where some members of the Australia delegation died.
In 2009, I came out of retirement at the age of 44 to represent the US at the Maccabiah Games, winning a bronze medal. This culminated a 24 year career of playing at the Maccabiah Games, winning two gold, one silver, and two bronze medals, and three MVPs.
I also toured South Africa in 1988 with the Pacific Coast Grizzlies, playing against the best teams in South Africa. My rugby career allowed me to play all over the world against international sides, and took me to places like Russia, Japan, Canada, South Africa, France, England, Israel, Scotland, and Bermuda.
I was inducted into the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 2004 along with some of the best professional athletes in the United States, including Mark Spitz and Sandy Koufax, amongst many other great Jewish sports stars. I also earned the MVP of the Year award at the Santa Monica Rugby Club eight times and in 2006 was also inducted into that club’s Hall of Fame.
I married my wife Karen in 1994, who I originally met in 1988, and we have three awesome kids, Scott, 15, Jamie, 12, and Lindsay, 9.
What makes rugby such a great sport? How does it compare to football?
Rugby is probably one of the most grueling sports in the world. It requires significant endurance and strength, as you have to play both offense and defense with no timeouts and very little stoppage of play. The very physical nature of the game creates an environment where no player can hide and the true character of each player comes out. Through this test of will and courage, tremendous bonds are made with teammates and lifelong friendships are formed. Prima Donnas are not tolerated and are exposed through the demanding requirements of the game.
Football is a very tough game as well. However it is a burst sport, where the maximum exertion is used in short furious bursts. The game has a tremendous amount of specialization, with a great deal of emphasis on each play. Rugby, while requiring a variety of different skills and physiques in different positions, is a game of continuous attrition where capitalizing on a teams weaknesses and mistakes through continuity of play and possession of the ball is the key to success. No timeouts and no substitutes.
That being said, I think it would have been fun to have played football. I think I would have liked it.
What can the sport do to get more national exposure?
With rugby having been added to the 2016 Olympic Games we are already starting to see a great deal of interest. Major networks like NBC are starting to televise more rugby, and as we get closer to the Olympics we should expect to see much more. Now we have top athletes who have just missed the cut in the NFL or NBA, seeing rugby as a vehicle to continue their professional sporting careers and potentially be Olympians. The US National Team is now starting to attract these top athletes more than ever before.
Also, with the tremendous commercial success and following of rugby outside of the US, and it's inclusion in the Olympics, corporate sponsors are going to be eager to capitalize on the growth of the sport.
There has also been a huge upsurge in the amount of youth and college programs in the country, and that is ultimately where the growth will come from.
How was the experience of playing in the Maccabiah games?
My involvement in the games has had a profound effect on me. As a Jewish athlete playing a sport not usually played by Jews, it was a lonely place. There was always the sense that, as a Jew, you were not good enough. It seemed that I was always fighting the stereotype of the weak Jew who could not play sports. And then I went to the Maccabiah Games, and here there were thousands of Jewish athletes from all over the world; excellent athletes, and in some cases world-renowned Olympians, all with a commonality and shared experience. It was amazing to be with all these world class Jewish athletes.
It felt like we were sticking it to anyone who ever tried to perpetuate the myth that Jews could not play sports and were fundamentally weak, especially with the games being held in Israel, in the midst of all their enemies.
Having experienced the same feeling that other great Jewish athletes like Mark Spitz, Mitch Gaylord, Lenny Krayzelberg, Kerri Strug, Jason Lezak , all Great gold medal-winning Olympians, is truly life affirming, and having been selected as the US delegations flag bearer at the Opening Ceremonies in 1997 was a highlight of my sporting career.
What was it like being inducted into the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame?
It was surreal. Here I was, an immigrant from Johannesburg, South Africa, being inducted into the company of some of the greatest American sporting figures in history. To be in the same company of Sandy Koufax, Hank Greenberg, Mark Spitz, Sarah Hughes, Jason Lezak, Red Auerbach, Marv Levy, Howard Kossell and so many more, is unreal to me.
I am very proud that we have a Jewish rugby player in the Hall of Fame as it gives our sport the recognition it deserve and in some way I am merely a representative of so many other great Jewish rugby players in the US.
Having many of my teammates from Santa Monica Rugby Club and the US Maccabiah team, come out to New York for the induction, as well as my family, was a great thrill.
I think it is so important that young Jewish athletes can look at these inductees and realize that there are no limits to what they can achieve and that it does not have to come at the expense of their Jewish identity.
What are you up to these days?
On the personal side, I try and spend as much time with my family as possible. I have an amazing wife, Karen, who was a four-time All American swimmer in college. My oldest son Scott is playing football as a high school freshman, my middle son Jamie is also playing football now for his middle school team, and my 9-year-old daughter is a wonderful soccer player. I have coached all my kids and still coach my daughter. I have also been very involved in coaching youth rugby in the San Fernando Valley.
I am actually distributing a great rugby-themed movie that a close rugby friend of mine wrote and directed. The movie will be launched through a very focused Internet campaign and initially distributed through online streaming and downloads. Anyone who watches the movie will earn a chance to win a free trip for two to New Zealand next year during the rugby world cup. The movie is called Play On and is available at www.playonthemovie.com. It is a very fun project and obviously a labor of love.
Other than that I still play rugby and squash every Sunday on the beach in Santa Monica. I am also a partner with a lifelong friend and business partner in a Private Equity Firm called The KJL Group.
Thank you to Shawn Lipman for giving us some insight to your career and the sport.
And Let Us Say, Amen.
For more on Jewish sports checkout WWW.THEGREATRABBINO.COM