Coaching cantor’s dedication to technique lifts Olympic hopeful

Cantor Ron Eichaker is helping coach Olympic hopeful Sophia Rivera. 

By Carol Wolf Solomon, Special to the Jewish Light

What do ancient history, musical theater, Judaism and Olympic-level javelin throwing have in common? It’s taken Cantor Ron Eichaker the better part of a lifetime to figure it out. These seemingly disparate interests all perfectly align when you delve into the persona and the ethos of Eichaker, the multitalented Cantor of United Hebrew Congregation since 1999.

Eichaker has been in the news recently — not for his cantorial achievements, but for his work as a track and field coach. One of his protégés, Sophia Rivera, a Brentwood High School senior track and field athlete, recently qualified to compete in the javelin at the U.S. Women’s Olympic Team trials in July. She hurled the javelin 180 feet 4 inches at the Brentwood Invitational track meet, setting a national record for the longest throw by a female high school athlete. Her throw also surpassed the Olympic trials qualifying standard of 54 meters (slightly more than 177 feet). 

Eichaker knows firsthand the magnitude of Sophia’s feat, having qualified for the men’s U.S. Olympic Team in the javelin in 1976. 

Eichaker’s journey from elite athlete to cantor to coach has been a circuitous one. 

“It’s taken me my whole adult life to figure out why I took up javelin throwing,” he said. “I have always been fascinated by history. I have always needed to know the origins and history of every interest I have pursued.” 

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Eichaker recalled that even as a child playing pick-up sports in his Chicago neighborhood, he tried to figure out the origins of each sport. 

“I needed to know why there are five people on a basketball team and nine on a baseball team,” he said.  

It was also during these neighborhood games that he realized that he could throw a ball “really, really far.” 

Inspiration struck as Eichaker watched older kids on the track. As a freshman in high school, he signed up for the track and field team. He asked the coach what was most needed on the team, and the response was “throwers.” So Eichaker played to his strength and took up the discus and shot put.  

The javelin wasn’t offered at the time in Illinois high school sports. He first saw a javelin thrown the summer after his freshman year. 

“I was enthralled,” Eichaker said. “I loved the grace and the technique. It fascinated me.” 

 

Passion for aesthetics, history

True to form, Eichaker immediately looked up and studied the history of the javelin. He discovered that it is the oldest form of physical competition, older even than competitive running.  

True to form, Eichaker immediately looked up and studied the history of the javelin. He discovered that it is the oldest form of physical competition, older even than competitive running.  

“That was enough for me. I was sold,” he said. 

Motivated by his passion for the aesthetics and history of the sport and by his desire to carry forward an ancient tradition, his goal was to become an elite thrower. 

“At the time, it didn’t matter how far I threw,” Eichaker said. “I strove to be a technically perfect javelinist. My friends thought I was unique. My critics thought I was weird.”

It is that passion for history, that desire to perpetuate tradition, and that drive to train and perfect technique that defines Eichaker’s approach to all of his interests and endeavors: music, the cantorate, teaching, cooking, coaching and life. His experience coaching Sophia has brought him full circle. 

“Coaching Sophia has reinvigorated that passion in me,” he said. “Articulating my passion to her, my demand for technical perfection and my requirement that preparation is essential for proper execution of a throw, has helped me to clarify why I got into it in the first place. It has created a domino effect in my life. I realize that everything points back to the histology of humankind.” 

Eichaker applies the same philosophy to his work as a cantor at United Hebrew and in the community.  

“That is why the cantorate is so important to me,” he said. “I am bringing ancient rites into the modern world. I am carrying the tradition forward.”   

Eichaker applies these methodologies to everything he does:  music, chanting and reading text, teaching and studying Jewish laws and traditions.

He believes that the most successful people, in athletics or in any other endeavor, are those who focus on the process rather than the outcome. 

“My success as a javelin thrower was an unintended outcome of my training,” he said. “I was never motivated by winning or setting records. Those are events that, once achieved, become ancient history in 24 hours. You are faced with either achieving them again or constantly reliving them. Many athletes sell their souls to their sport. I think there’s something more meaningful in the athletic experience, and that’s what I try to convey to Sophia.”

Eichaker knew early on that his life would be defined by more than his athletic ability. He attended Northern Illinois University on a full athletic scholarship knowing that he was on a track to go to rabbinic seminary, for his musical talent also appeared at an early age. 

His family recognized his vocal talent and started having him sing for relatives when he was a mere 4 and 5 years old. He first sang professionally at age 7 and was leading services at age 14. Growing up, Eichaker was fond of listening to Harry Belafonte and Connie Francis sing Jewish and Yiddish music.  

 

Solid Jewish foundation

His love of Judaism and his thirst for studying history were nurtured and encouraged by his teachers at the Arie Crown Hebrew Day School, an Orthodox coed school in Chicago. While his father’s upbringing was Reform and his mother’s was Conservative, they chose to send him to an Orthodox day school mostly as a matter of convenience. It was the only school to offer extended hours that accommodated his parents’ work schedules. To this day he is grateful for the education he received there. 

“The school gave me a very solid Jewish foundation,” Eichaker said. “It provided me with study methodologies to look at history through a Jewish mind. That was very fulfilling to me.”

Even as Eichaker trained feverishly and took his athletics to an Olympic level during his undergraduate years, he knew that his career path would take him in a different direction. He had what he describes as “a fleeting two-year experience as an elite javelin thrower,” qualifying for the 1976 Montreal Olympics at age 19. 

But while training for the Olympics, he injured his elbow, needed surgery and was ultimately unable to compete. He was determined to recover and resumed throwing during his senior year of college. 

His first venture into the world of coaching occurred while he was attending the Jewish Theological Seminary. He volunteered to coach undergraduate javelin throwers at Columbia University and quickly discovered that he was too intense for that role. 

“I had no time for people who didn’t take training seriously enough,” he said, tongue only slightly in cheek.

The coaching bug bit again while Eichaker was serving as cantor of Congregation Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun in Milwaukee. He was asked to coach high school football and baseball players. This time, learning from his experience, he didn’t coach the athletes directly. He studied film and advised the coaches on how best to prepare their athletes. He would also visit area schools to give motivational talks to athletes. 

To gain students’ attention and respect, Eichaker would sometimes show off his throwing arm. His final javelin throw came just prior to his relocating to St. Louis. During one of his demonstrations, Eichaker planted his foot and promptly ruptured an Achilles tendon.  

“I arrived at United Hebrew on crutches,” he said.  “My body was sending me a message. I got here and pushed the reset button.”

Eichaker dove into life at United Hebrew and in the St. Louis Jewish community with the same fervor and passion he devoted to his athletic training and coaching. He quickly made his mark by enhancing existing programs at United Hebrew and initiating new ones.  

 

Coaching opportunity at home

Over time, more opportunities to coach would come his way,  the first with his youngest daughter, Lindsay, who inherited her father’s throwing arm. Lindsay chose softball pitching as her athletic outlet and was also fanatical about training and technique. She is now a doctor of physical therapy at the Rehabilitation Institute of St. Louis and a pitching coach to young girls.

Eichaker has come full circle as he prepares Sophia for her shot at the Olympics. The story of how he became Sophia’s javelin coach begins with a bit of bashert (fate). Sophia’s family relocated to St. Louis from New Jersey when Sophia was entering sixth grade. She had already made waves in New Jersey by throwing the minijavelin farther than most boys, and her parents needed a coach in St. Louis for Sophia. 

“This is a devoutly Christian family,” Eichaker said. 

Sophia’s mother, Michelle Hassemer, happened to have a co-worker who was a member of United Hebrew. The co-worker was aware of Eichaker’s prowess as a javelin thrower and coach.    Eichaker initially turned down the family’s request due to his many other time commitments. Hassemer persisted, and a year later he finally agreed, but only after Sophia and her family agreed to fully buy into his methods. 

“I told them that I was not interested in creating the best javelin thrower in the world,” Eichaker said. “I was interested in creating the best Sophia and in maximizing her abilities.” 

In keeping with this approach, he first had Sophia learn the history of the javelin. He was also careful to bring her along slowly, as she was still in middle school. He encouraged her to play other sports and have fun. 

“I wanted Sophia to develop her mind and her soul before her body,” Eichaker said. “Too many kids are pushed to do more than their bodies can handle. I wanted her to be healthy and know that her body would continue to grow.” 

Eichaker also did not have Sophia begin weight training until her sophomore year of high school. 

Looking back on those early conversations, the Rivera family is grateful that they bought into Eichaker’s coaching philosophy. 

“We are blessed to have Ron come into our lives as Sophia’s coach,” Hassemer said. “Although his time is limited due to his obligations to the congregation, his impact has been enormous. He’s taught her to focus on the details of technique to an extent that is rare for such a young athlete. Ron has also helped us all understand what it really takes to support an elite athlete –  emotionally, physically, nutritionally, how to support her at meets when he’s not available – the whole package.”

 

‘Greatest throwing performance’

Eichaker and Sophia are now seeing this long-term, technique-based approach to training pay off in a big way. Eichaker called Sophia’s performance at the Brentwood Invitational meet “the greatest throwing performance by any female high school athlete in the U.S.”  

In a 90-minute span she exceeded 50 feet in the shot put, 150 feet in the discus, and then set a record with her throw of 180 feet 4 inches in the javelin. 

“That was a Jim Thorpe- or Babe Didrikson-caliber performance,” he said.

Hassemer believes that Eichaker’s approach has prepared Sophia well for athletic success and for success in life. 

“Ron has helped us all understand that track and field isn’t about quick wins, instant gratification, age-group championships or even rivalries,” she said. “It’s about the long game, long-term track goals and most importantly, Sophia’s development as a person. 

“She’s accomplished so very much athletically that it’s mind-boggling as a parent. But even more satisfying is the fact that she is a stellar student, a young woman of character and morals, and a truly kind and giving person. We just can’t say enough about him.”

Members of the Brentwood High School Athletic Department are also fans of Eichaker’s coaching philosophy and are grateful for his work with all of the track and field team’s throwers. 

“He is a fantastically giving man who thinks of all kids and what is best for them all the time,” said Stephen Ayotte, assistant principal and athletic director. “He devotes his time and knowledge of throws graciously and asks for nothing from Brentwood in return. I have admired his long-term planning for Sophia rather than going for the short-term gain and glory. We are all better off here at Brentwood for his input with our athletes the last four years.” 

Keeping his own experience in mind, Eichaker is taking a cautious approach to preparing Sophia for the Olympic trials in July. And in the fall, she will attend and compete for the University of Wisconsin. Eichaker is excited about her college choice. 

“Wisconsin has one of the up-and-coming coaches in the country,” he said. “He doesn’t burn out athletes by making them overperform.” 

So how did it work to have a Jewish cantor coach a devoutly Christian athlete? Eichaker said that one of his ground rules was to bar discussion of religion during training sessions. He also credits Sophia’s family with being extremely supportive and having total trust and faith in him as her coach.  

“If and when we get past labels, we can have a broader discussion,” Eichaker said. “We can get into the white space between words. Judaism is not the product. The Judaic process is the product. It’s a way of living. We don’t have to even be Jewish or a ‘member of the club’ to play the game. This is how a devoutly Christian family can be a part of the process.”