Ultra-Orthodox Jewish marathoner from North Jersey shatters stereotypes on road to Olympics
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On the face of it, Beatie Deutsch seems an unlikely celebrity athlete.
The Passaic native is an ultra-Orthodox mother of five who speaks openly about her Jewish faith, prays daily and dresses modestly with a head scarf and knee-length skirt, even while competing.
Other professional athletes might avoid such outfits for fear of slowing their pace. But the self described "Marathon Mother" – now the face of an international ad campaign for Adidas – has been winning races and breaking records since joining the running circuit five years ago.
The 31-year-old is also a powerful voice representing ultra-Orthodox women, a group that traditionally has avoided publicity. Deutsch, who grew up as "Speedy Beatie" in the gyms of Passaic, openly shares her spiritual insights as well as triumphs and struggles with thousands of followers on social media.
She ran her second race while seven months pregnant with her fifth child, placed first in the 2018 Jerusalem Marathon and won Israel's National Championship in 2019. She scored half-marathon victories in Latvia and Tel Aviv in 2019 and in Miami last year.
There have been plenty of turns on her trek to athletic stardom: Deutsch has battled leg injuries and health problems, including anemia and celiac disease. She's long dreamed of running in the Tokyo Olympics and, as a champion on three continents, was poised to compete until disappointment struck – twice.
First, the Games were postponed last summer due to the coronavirus pandemic. When the marathon, one of the Olympics' signature events, was rescheduled for a Saturday this August, Deutsch felt "like I had been punched in the stomach," she said in an interview.
For Orthodox Jews, Saturday is the Sabbath, a day reserved for prayer, family and spiritual reflection. Performing work of any kind – including, for Deutsch, training and competing – is prohibited.
Deutsch hired an attorney and lobbied the International Olympic Committee to shift the race, but to no avail.
An unthinkable loss
Then, at an April 24 marathon in Britain, the unthinkable happened: Following a string of wins, Deutsch lost a qualifying race that would have made her eligible for the Olympics. It was a major blow for the petite, 4-foot-11 runner.
Still, her dramatic story captured the attention of Israel's Holy-Land Productions, which is recording a documentary about her journey.
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Adidas, meanwhile, has included Deutsch among a multiethnic group of athletes for a worldwide ad campaign this year titled "Impossible is Nothing."
"Where some see an Orthodox runner, I see my belief pushing me forward," she proclaims on commercials and billboards seen round the globe.
The campaign also features Russian figure skater Alexandra Trusova, Indian track-and-field gold medalist Hima Das, South African rugby captain Siya Kolisi and NBA star Damian Lillard.
Deutsch's more reserved look isn't the usual training gear for competitive runners, who tend to favor skimpier outfits optimized for speed. But Adidas "saw it as a value that I dress modestly and I'm religious," said Deutsch, who has previously had a Nike endorsement. "Dressing modestly reminds me that my strength is not my own," she said.
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Even with her Olympic dream deferred, Deutsch is an inspiration to fans. She frequently reminds her 25,000 Instagram and Facebook followers that everyone has "gifts" that they're intended to use to better the world. Hers, she says, is running.
"If there's anything I've learned from running, it is to stand strong and stay positive, to drown out the voices of self-defeat and hold onto faith," she posted online. "I want to make the most of this one precious life that I was given."
After losing the Olympic qualifier in Wales, Deutsch spoke to The Record and NorthJersey.com from the airport, sounding exhausted but determined to keep pushing forward. She lost despite setting a personal record of 2:31:39.
At the finish line, she said, she felt at peace. "Everything that happens is for the best and is part of Hashem's plan for me," she said, using a Hebrew term for God.
She's more determined than ever to follow her dream of reaching the Olympics, she said. Three years from now, the 2024 games will be held in Paris.
Religious athletes 'face a choice'
Deutsch's scheduling dispute with the Olympics puts her in a long roster of religious athletes forced to choose between spiritual observance and competitive pursuits.
Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher and Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax became an iconic figure among Jews when he benched himself for Game 1 of the 1965 World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur, the religion's holiest day. Koufax played so well in the rest of the Series, he was named MVP.
Last year, Estee Ackerman, a Long Island 19-year-old among the country's top ranked table-tennis players, sat out the U.S. Olympic trials because her tournament matches also were scheduled on the Sabbath.
At least one Orthodox athlete is on track to compete in Tokyo this year: Pitcher D.J. Sharabi, of Millbrae, California, is on the Israeli baseball team. He keeps kosher and prays daily with tefillin, prayer accessories worn by observant Jews.
Deutsch’s story also recalls the struggles of Eric Liddell, the British Olympian immortalized in the 1981 film “Chariots of Fire.” A Christian missionary, he dropped out of the 100-meter dash at the 1924 Olympics because a qualifying run was scheduled on a Sunday, stirring both praise and anger.
Still, the IOC has lately shown signs of more flexibility.
When the 2012 games in London fell on Ramadan, arrangements were made for Muslim athletes, including predawn and post-sunset meals at venues and Halal food. Muslim fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, a Maplewood native, was permitted to wear a hijab while she competed in the Rio de Janeiro Games in 2016 for the U.S.
Most observant athletes often face a choice when they reach the highest levels of competition, said Jeffrey Gurock, a Yeshiva University history professor and author of "Judaism's Encounter with American Sports."
"Judaism's clock and calendar are frequently in conflict with sports' schedules," he said. While there have been examples of Orthodox teams and Mormon teams receiving accommodations, "the problem is far more difficult for those who play individual sports."
Growing up Orthodox in Passaic, Deutsch was always athletic, earning a black belt in taekwondo and studying gymnastics. At her all-girls school, she hurtled up and down the basketball court, earning the nickname "Speedy Beatie."
After high school, she attended a women's seminary in Israel before moving to the country for good at age 19. She married her husband, Michael, a bike enthusiast and Judaic studies teacher.
After four pregnancies in six years, Deutsch said she fell out of shape. She focused instead on raising her family and working full time for nonprofits.
About five years ago, after she came in last place in a family race, she decided it was time for a change.
Deutsch started running for exercise and quickly fell in love with the sport. She had a natural talent for it and soon began working with a professional trainer. For Deutsch, days begin with a 5 a.m. wakeup followed by a 12-mile (20 kilometer) run, strength training and swimming, before returning home to take care of the family.
At the starting line, the elite runners would tower above her. But as the races would progress, Deutsch would inch her way ahead of the pack. In 2019, she won the Israel marathon championship in 2:42:18, 3 minutes faster than the Olympic qualifying time of the moment.
"Her story illustrates that it is never too late to chase one's dreams, and that athletes can do so while balancing motherhood and staying true to their values," her attorney, Akiva Shapiro of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher in New York, wrote in his appeal to the IOC.
Next year's world championships offer another opportunity – and aren't scheduled for the Sabbath. "We will continue to raise awareness and fight for the rights of religious athletes at the Olympics and in all sporting bodies worldwide, which need to do a much better job considering and accommodating religious needs," Shapiro said.
Deutsch, meanwhile, is back to training, waking each day at 5 a.m. with Paris 2024 in her sights.
"I believe I can achieve my goal with Hashem's help," she wrote on Facebook. "But at the end of the day, I want to know that I achieved something greater than the Olympic standard. I want to know that I made a difference."
Deena Yellin covers religion for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to her work covering how the spiritual intersects with our daily lives, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.