It was right at the beginning of Israel’s first COVID-19 lockdown back in March 2020 when inspiration struck for Shari Wright-Pilo, a digital marketing expert and the co-founder of Follow Team Israel.
With nearly everyone confined to their homes, still reeling from the magnitude of what this pandemic meant, Wright-Pilo approached some of Israel’s top athletes — many of whom she’s covered for years — to share some of their current workouts for a video she was putting together for the Follow Team Israel Facebook page.
“This was the very first lockdown when nobody was doing workouts online [yet]. But I said, I’m going to pitch them and we’re going to put together a Team Israel workout across the board. Everyone was home, including the athletes. They had to keep up with their training as much as possible. We knew that everyone at home needed a bit of action in their lives too. So why not get instruction from world-class athletes?” Wright-Pilo tells NoCamels.
One of the first to happily accept was Israeli judoka Peter Paltchik — then ranked third in the world — who showed off his lizard walk. The exclusive workout video also featured Itamar Einhorn, cyclist for Team Start-Up Nation, Israeli golfer Laetitia Beck, Israeli equestrian show jumper Ashlee Bond, and Israeli national baseball team outfielder Blake Gailen.
“There was no sports news, no competitions, but we wanted their names to stay in people’s minds,” she explains.
More than a year later, Wright-Pilo and Follow Team Israel co-founder David Wiseman continue to pursue their mission to find creative and inspiring ways to share the stories of Israeli athletes as part of their social media “passion project.” The duo’s social media presence (on Facebook and Instagram) is one of the only platforms devoted exclusively to covering Israeli sports news in English.
Wiseman tells NoCamels he and Wright-Pilo also came together to “help make the connection between the athletes and the fans.”
“We’re not a score service. We’re not here to tell you who won five, two, three [medals.] We’re about [the athletes’] story, their journey. We’re just the conduit so that basically someone comes away and says, ‘Wow, I didn’t know Israel had this, I didn’t know Israel had that,'” he says.
In a span of six years when the project was first launched, Follow Team Israel’s Facebook followers have skyrocketed from under 2,000 in the its humble beginnings to over 20,000.
Wiseman and Wright-Pilo, who update Follow Team Israel while maintaining full-time jobs in digital marketing, are also pulling out all the stops for the upcoming Olympics in Tokyo this month. They have already featured profiles and videos of many of the 89 athletes competing in the games.
It was an attempt to find coverage of Israeli athletes at the 2012 London Olympics in English that inspired the project in the first place.
Wright-Pilo, who grew up figure skating from the age of three in Canada before moving to Israel in 1982, was an avid Olympic sports fan and grew up watching it every few years with her mother. She wanted her daughter, a gymnast since age four, to experience it too, so she asked on Twitter if anyone had seen anything about Israel’s athletes in English.
Sign up for our free weekly newsletterSubscribe
“In 2012, I said ‘Now she’s old enough, I want her to appreciate the Olympics and the athletes.” She was already eight years into gymnastics,” Wright-Pilo tells NoCamels, “And we were always Team Canada fans. So, why shouldn’t we be Team Israel fans?”
“Somebody answered me with, ‘No I haven’t seen anything,’ Wright-Pilo recalls. ‘And then David answers me with ‘No, why? And I said, ‘Because I think the world should know about Team Israel. And it was Motzei Shabbat [Saturday night after the Shabbat] and we met on Skype and just planned it out. We said, ‘Let’s do it. Let’s do a blog. Let’s do Facebook. Let’s do Twitter.’ We didn’t have Instagram yet. And we just pushed through it without knowing where we were going.”
Wright-Pilo says the pair contacted the Israeli Olympic Committee and immediately got put into the organization’s press group of newspapers and media publications that follow the Olympics. “Nobody gave us any credit, they thought we were just two young people who loved sports,” she tells NoCamels.
View this post on Instagram
For years, Wright-Pilo and Wiseman worked diligently to cover Israeli athletes at sporting events and gain recognition. Over three years ago during the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, their coverage struck a chord when they posted videos of athletes in sports like skeleton sledding and men’s and women’s figure skating.
These were videos that no one else had published so they went viral, Wright-Pilo says.
“2018 is the real turning point,” adds Wiseman. “We get to the Winter Olympics of 2018 and up until that point, we had just over 5,000 followers. That had taken us from May 2012 to February 2018. So basically in six years, we’ve got five and a bit thousand followers. We had a couple of videos. But then the first few days of the games when enthusiasm and excitement are at their highest, [the videos] had a million views.”
Wiseman tells NoCamels that, after that, “likes” on the page doubled in four days. “By then we knew, ‘Ok, we’re on the map. We’ve made it.’ We wanted to be like, ‘Maybe we can get to 10,000 likes.’ By the end of the Games, we were at 11,000 after three days.
“And I think it’s a testament to the athletes, to everyone, that you have to hang in there to have the success. Right? Because the thing is, life really is like a game of snakes and ladders,” Wiseman adds.
Wright-Pilo also attributes the project’s success to her partnership with Australian-born Wiseman. “David is a genius. He’s a sports encyclopedia,” she says, “David is brilliant when it comes to sports data information and statistics. I like the creative side and I like the personal side of getting to know the athletes.”
The journey, not the medals
The efforts to showcase personal stories of the athletes in their attempts to be the best in their sport is what made Follow Team Israel get noticed in the first place, Wright-Pilo admits.
When she and Wiseman attended the 2019 Tel Aviv Grand Prix where Israeli judoka and Olympic bronze medalist Ori Sasson won the gold medal, she waited patiently as swarms of representatives from Israeli media publications pushed their way through to get a quote. Finally, she came close and asked, “Ori, how about a few words in English?” Without hesitation, he recognized her and said, “Shari, for sure.”
“And then everybody’s looking at me, from Walla!, Sports Channel, Ynet, [Israeli media publications], everybody is there going, ‘He just said her name. Who is this chick?” she says, “So it was like, ‘Yeah we’re here.”
Over the years, the duo has attended Israeli sports events like judo, rugby, hockey, swimming, and gymnastics, even if it meant taking time off work. They have made strong connections with both the athletes and the IOC and continue to do so as the 2020 Olympics (yes, it’s still officially called the 2020 Olympics) roll around the corner.
Wiseman says Follow Team Israel’s Olympics coverage will include a daily preview of what’s coming up each day for Israeli athletes, as well as how they progress.
“We’re basically going to track that during the day and say this is what is happening and do it live,” Wiseman explains.
For some sports, this includes coverage over a span of a few days as the competitions move forward. For others, the intensity heats ups in sudden death.
“In sports like judo, you start the day at 9 o’clock or at the first round. In a few hours, there will be a final. Someone will be winning a gold medal that day,” he says. “If you win the gold medal it means, depending on how many people compete, you would have won five or six matches that day.”
For Follow Team Israel, it’s not just about the medals, it’s about the journey. “We don’t talk about medals,” says Wright-Pilo. “Yes we post about medals but we love sharing the stories of how they got there.”
“We have a passion for two things, Israel and sport and that’s what drives us. We do it for the athletes. We do it so that they know that their sacrifices aren’t in vain. And then that way, they’re just like us,” Wiseman adds.