Former Lodi High track, cross country star Jeff Merrill competes in 'Jewish Olympics' in Israel
Former Lodi High track and cross country standout Jeff Merrill, second from right, stands with other members of the 4X400 relay team that recently won the gold medal at the Maccabiah Games in Tel Aviv, Israel. Merrill also earned a bronze medal in the 800. (Courtesy photo)

Jeff Merrill's running abilities have taken him from Lodi High to the University of Michigan.

The middle distance runner won league titles as a Flame and has continued to compete at the highest level for the Wolverines.

When he recently set a new personal best in the 800-meter run, however, he did it on a completely different stage. He recorded it at the 18th World Maccabiah Games in Tel Aviv, Israel July 12-23.

Merrill's mark of 1:52.44 was not only his fastest ever, but also earned him a bronze medal.

"I kinda surprised myself because I haven't been doing too much this summer," said Merrill, who qualified for the games after applying and hitting the qualifying times in his events. "The Big 10 meet was in the middle of May and I have been doing some running to stay in shape, but not intense training."

The Maccabiah Games, also known as the Jewish Olympics, have been held every four years since 1957. The 2009 Games featured close to 7,000 athletes from over 51 countries competing in 31 events. It is the third-biggest sporting event in the world.

Merrill was one of over 900 athletes representing the U.S. in the Games. He was part of Maccabi USA, a group whose mission is to "perpetuate and preserve the American Jewish community by encouraging Jewish Pride, strengthening Jewish bonds and by creating a heightened awareness of Israel and Jewish Identity," according to the organization's Web site www.maccabiusa.com.

"It is great. Just meeting so many different Jewish athletes from around world is an awesome experience," Merrill said. "Being able to complete for the U.S. is really, really fun."

Merrill also ran the third leg of the American 4x400 relay team, which won gold by beating the Israeli squad by .02 seconds.

The competition marked Merrill's second trip to the Games, as he also went in 2005 and competed in the junior division. He took gold in the 800 and as a member of the 4X400 relay team.

Merrill spent close to three weeks in Israel. The first week, the U.S. athletes trained in the morning and then toured the country every afternoon and evening. He said this trip was more enjoyable because he was more free to check out the country compared to when he was younger.

"I like going to the Masada, near the Dead Sea. It's a hilltop fortress from the Roman era. It's amazing and has really good views of everything," Merrill said. "I also liked going to the Sea of Galilee. You here about the stories and know all the history, but to go there and see the landmarks is really awesome."

Merrill and the U.S. athletes also did some charity work, including visiting children in hospitals and bringing them gifts.

The Games are very popular in Israel. Merrill said they are advertised throughout the country and there are decent crowds at the events. The Games are also broadcast on TV.

Merrill said the vast amount of high-caliber athletes also made the Games enjoyable. He watched many of the competitions in other sports, but mostly enjoyed seeing American Olympic gold medalist Jason Lezak swim.

For Merrill, every aspect of the Games held its own greatness.

"It's all a treat every time I go there. I love all of it," he said.

Merrill is now prepping for his senior year at Michigan. He'll be in Lodi for a few more weeks before he returns to Ann Arbor for a cross country camp. Merrill doesn't compete in cross country for the Wolverines, but he trains with the squad to get ready for the track season.

In his senior campaign, he's hoping to break his personal-best time again. If Merrill can get it below 1:50, he'll have a shot at hitting the goal he has set for himself.

"It would nice to get All-American. That's the goal," he said.

Contact reporter Joelle Milholm at joellem@lodinews.com.

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