Carol Benjamin didn't like having the bull's-eye on her back.
Competing in the seventh Maccabiah Games in 1965, she despised the pressure that came with being one of the most highly regarded athletes in fencing. And she didn't like the idea that if she didn't come away with a gold medal, she had failed to meet expectations.
It was an unpleasant feeling for the then-19-year-old New York native, but it didn't stop her from finishing first and continuing her success in the sport by winning the NCAA championship in 1966.
Benjamin has another athletic trip planned to Israel this year, but this time she'll fly burden-free.
What started out as a personal challenge five months ago to see whether she could run at a competitive level quickly turned into her being invited back to the games for a chance to win her second gold medal.
"I don't feel that kind of pressure now," said Benjamin, who lives in Bowie. "It's a different time — this is different for me. I feel the same energy and desire, but I don't feel that kind of pressure. I just feel 100 percent great.
"It's much easier [to be the underdog.] It's much easier not to be having the pressure of you're expected to win. And if you don't win, 'What did you do wrong?' even if it's only you who thinks that."
For two weeks this summer, Benjamin will be in Israel competing in the 19th Maccabiah Games, representing Team USA in the Masters half-marathon in Tel Aviv.
She learned she had received the berth on Oct. 25, her 67th birthday.
To make the team, Benjamin was required to have certified times in sanctioned races. In the Diva Half Marathon on Long Island in New York and the Baltimore Half Marathon, Benjamin finished in first and third place in her age group, respectively, and broke her personal record in both.
"Initially, it was sort of I'll do it now and then, and it was fun, and I always felt great when I finished because it kept me in shape," Benjamin said. "I found that I liked [running marathons], and I was doing well in them, considering my age group, so I thought, 'Woah, I could do this.'"
The Maccabiah Games are the third largest competition in the world behind the Olympics and the Pan-American Games. The first games were held in 1932 and included 390 athletes from 14 countries; by this year, those numbers will have ballooned to 9,000 and 70.
Sara Feinstein of Maccabi USA said the Maccabiah Games were created to provide Jews with an outlet to have strong bodies along with strong minds. She said the games' mission is to promote unity among Jews through sport, to create awareness among the youth of Judaism's history and to create lasting bonds within the community.
Benjamin, a retired therapist who now works part-time, remembers how much pride and accomplishment she felt the first time she visited Israel and participated in the Maccabiah Games. She also recalled how much closer she felt to her religion after the competition and spending three weeks immersed in her heritage.
"I so badly wanted to be on a Maccabiah team again," she said. "It's very meaningful to me to be able to go back to Israel."
With the support of her family, including her husband, Melvin, her running coach, and her three children, Benjamin will be returning to the games 48 years motivated but unburdened.
"The fact that mentally she has been doing this for her whole life — competing in events [will help her do well in these games]," her daughter, Sarah Seibold, said. "A lot of it is a mental thing, and she has the mental strength to be able to make it."
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