Maiya Chard-Yaron had been to Israel a number of times as a kid to visit family and friends and for special events throughout the years. But nothing, she said, was like the experience she had there this summer.
Chard-Yaron, a 2002 graduate of La Jolla Country Day School, played for the Israeli national softball team this summer, spending most of the month of July overseas while participating in an international event near Tel Aviv and another outside the country in Prague.
"Softball has always been such a huge part of my life," Chard-Yaron said. "I never thought of going to Israel to play softball. It was a real crashing of my two worlds. To go there and play a sport like softball gave it a whole different dynamic."
The Israeli national softball team is a lot like other international teams in countries where a sport is in the developmental stages. Like the host Greek baseball team at the 2004 Athens Olympics, the team was made up of players from Israel as well as players from other countries with Israeli heritage.
Chard-Yaron has lived her entire life in the San Diego area as an American citizen, but also has Israeli citizenship because her parents were both born there. Chard-Yaron's mother was pregnant with her when the family moved to San Diego in the mid-1980s.
Chard-Yaron was one of two players on the team living in the United States full time, but she said a lot of her teammates had at one time lived in the United States, so had been introduced to baseball or softball.
The Israeli national team played its first international tournament two years ago. This summer, it played in the 17th Maccabiah Games, a multi-sport event held every four years near Tel Aviv that is the third largest international sporting event in the world, Chard-Yaron said. In the event's first year including softball, the Israeli team took the bronze medal.
Later in the month, the team traveled to Prague for the European Championships, going 3-3 in its six games there. Israel's first appearance in the European Championships was two years ago, when it went 1-6, and Chard-Yaron said the team felt its .500 record this time was a significant improvement. It also lost a one-run game to the eventual pool champion from Slovakia, another sign the Israeli team is making progress.
"It's a small sport there, so some of the details are a little rough around the edges," Chard-Yaron said. "But seeing it through the eyes of the softball community was really amazing. It was very different. It wasn't a trip to go see my family or go tour around and see everything in the country. I got to see things through the eyes of the people who live all around the country."
Chard-Yaron, a pitcher, will be a senior this fall at Columbia University. She was a standout player at Country Day, winning all-league honors and all-CIF-San Diego Section honors in each of her four years.
Her coach there, Corinne Brunn, named her a captain, and said none of the Torreys teams have been the same since Chard-Yaron graduated.
"As great as her ability is on the field, her biggest ability is her leadership," Brunn said. "She'll do very well in life if she continues doing what she's doing."
Chard-Yaron said she jumped at the opportunity to play for the Isralei national team, more for the life experience even than the softball experience.
"When I play for Columbia, we play to win," she said. "But playing for Israel, everything was put into such a different perspective. The U.S. team went to the European Championships and won the gold medal. They stayed in a nice hotel and chartered a bus to all their games, and traveled around a little bit to see some things. I could have played for that team, but I guess this was just more real."
Chard-Yaron said she enjoyed the challenge of getting to the fields every day without a car, hopping a ride with a teammate or riding the train to practice.
Finding good fields to play on wasn't easy, unlike in the United States, where from an airplane window, you can look down in almost any part of the country and see baseball and softball diamonds everywhere you look.
She said she wouldn't trade the experience for anything.
"There were these security guards at the fields, and at the beginning of the tournament, they had never seen softball before," Chard-Yaron recalled. "But by the end of the two weeks, they were cheering for us and wanted us to show them how to hit and throw. They had discovered a whole new sport. I made friends I'll have the rest of my life. It was really unbelievable."