Back in her first days as a walk-on member of UCLA’s swim
team, then-freshman Hayley Hacker set herself a seemingly impossible goal: to make the Maccabiah Games.
But three years later and after significant improvements, Hacker, a rising senior, saw her dream realized when she was informed that she had been selected to represent the United States at the 19th Maccabiah Games, a Jewish-only competition in the format of the Olympics. The games took place last month and are held every four years.
“I came in freshman year and I would say that the Maccabiah Games were my dream like way up there, way out of reach,” Hacker said. “When I found out that I had made the team earlier this year, it was probably the most exciting news I’d ever gotten.”
Yet Hacker did more than just make the team; she helped lead Team USA. In the 400-meter free relay, Hacker posted a personal best by around two seconds on her split and the American team was only barely out-touched for the gold by Israel, who set a national record with its time.
Hacker’s success in the relay further showed coach Cyndi Gallagher how important the rising senior swimmer is to her team.
“I knew this about her, but it’s just hitting me over the head with a sledge hammer: she’s a team player, I mean a huge team player,” Gallagher said. “She will always swim fast on relays. You want those people on your team.”
However for Hacker, the games were just as much about the cultural experience in Israel as they were about the competition, according to rising senior Emily Weir.
“She loved the balance of the cultural activities,” Weir said. “They were able to go out and explore Israel and (its) heritage, but at the same time she was still being an athlete.”
After training in the mornings, Team USA was taken on a 10-day tour of Israel that included visits to the Red Sea, Tel Aviv and the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum.
Furthermore, Hacker said she was especially proud to represent both the United States and the Jewish community during her time in Israel.
“Hearing the chants for Team USA and knowing that’s you, that’s just such a proud feeling,” she said. “It was just kind of a double emotion that you’re representing America internationally but you’re also representing the Jewish people as a whole.”
Looking to her last year at UCLA, Hacker will be a captain for the swim and dive team, something that reflects the team-first mentality she displayed at the Maccabiah Games, as well as how much the once walk-on has improved during her first three years.
“When she stepped into this team as a freshman, she was way over her head but she never gave up. She hadn’t done a lot of the training that we have done but she changed her lifestyle to step up to the plate with UCLA and she’s gotten faster every year,” Gallagher said. “If you improve yourself a little bit, then the team is going to get better, and she’s improved herself a lot.”