When you believe that failure doesn’t exist, you’re willing to take a leap of faith regardless of the outcome. A.J. (Adam) Edelman’s no-fail mindset has taken him to great heights: MIT as an undergrad, championships in hockey and skeleton, the 2018 Olympics as a competitor, and an MBA program at a top-10 business school. It also has motivated him to take unconventional — to say the least — pathways, which is how he ended up in South Korea this winter with a team of Olympians preparing for the start of the Beijing Olympics, which get underway in February 2022.
Edelman, a four-time Israeli national champion in the skeleton, enrolled with the MBA Class of 2021 at Yale School of Management in 2019 but deferred his MBA this year so he could build the first-ever Olympic Israeli bobsled team. And, at first, everything went well: After finding a multi-million-dollar sponsor to fund the next few years of his mission, Edelman told Yale he’d be taking at least two years away from his studies and began recruiting talent for the team.
But in September the deal fell apart. The team went from $5 million in pledged support to nothing, and Edelman was faced with the biggest decision of his life: Let his country down, or liquidate his savings and take on a mountain of debt to fund the team himself.
He chose the latter.
“I’m a firm believer that if you have the ability to do something in life, it’s an obligation to do so. You have no right to squander a unique opportunity that you’ve been given,” he says.
‘I HAD TO MAKE AN IMPACT FIRST’
Massachusetts-born Edelman feels deeply connected to his Jewish heritage. As a young hockey goalie in high school, he was offered scholarships but declined for religious reasons.
“I thought that people in Jewish communities, like myself, didn’t do sports; we didn’t have any religious sports role models,” Edelman tells Poets&Quants. “In hindsight, it was a terrible decision to have said ‘no’ to those offers purely based on my identity and the circumstances of my belief system. I had an opportunity to do something, but I let my preconceived notions and biases of what was expected of me dictate my future.”
Edelman went on to play hockey as an undergrad at MIT, the school’s first Sabbath-observant player. Although he regrets turning down the scholarships, the experience became the foundation for his life’s mission: fostering more athletic participation in religious communities, with a goal to someday launch a foundation to encourage kids in minority groups to excel in sports.
But he knew that to be successful he would have to increase his network and boost his credibility. “Nobody is going to give cash to a has-been missed hockey goalie to start a foundation,” he says. “I had to make an impact first.”
And that’s how he began training for the Olympic Games.
AN UNLIKELY OLYMPIAN
Edelman, who also has competed in bodybuilding, tried speed skating with the hopes that his hockey skills would carry over. But when he was introduced to bobsledding, he was immediately drawn to the sport.
“I certainly don’t have a unique athletic talent, but I have a talent for trying extremely hard and putting all of my efforts into working towards a goal,” he says.
He got in touch with the Israeli Bobsled and Skeleton Federation and asked if he could represent them, but he was told that at 5 feet, 10 inches he was too small to excel in the sport. Instead, they suggested that he try skeleton, which is like luge in that it involves a single competitor riding a sled down an iced track — except in skeleton the athlete goes face, and not feet, first. Encouraged to try his hand at riding the small sled to reach speeds upward of 90 miles per hour, Edelman made his first skeleton experience at the Olympic facilities in Lake Placid in New York in 2014.
He was told to find another sport.
“The scouts told me that I was not athletic and that I would only achieve a small level of success but would never be competitive,” he says.
NOT TAKING ‘NO’ FOR AN ANSWER
Edelman was determined to prove the scouts wrong. “I decided that I wouldn’t stop until I qualified Israel for the Olympic Games.”
For the next four years, Edelman lived and breathed the Olympics. He poured his salary as a former product manager into funding his training himself, waking up every day at 3 a.m. to the Olympic theme song. On his phone was a countdown to the Games. Training seven days a week, eight hours a day, 52 weeks a year, Edelman’s hard work paid off when he became the first Orthodox Jew and Israel’s first sliding sport Olympian to qualify for the 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea. He was one of 30 athletes to compete and finished in 28th place with a time of 52.35 seconds — 2.17 seconds slower than gold medal winner Yun Sungbin of South Korea.
“I’m a believer that the Olympic Games are not a personal goal; they should never be a selfish endeavor like that,” Edelman says. “It’s an incredible honor and privilege to represent a country.”
NEXT STEP: AN MBA FROM A TOP SCHOOL
After the 2018 Olympic Games, Edelman kept competing, winning four Israeli national titles and two medals in IBSF-sanctioned international competition. He retired from the skeleton as Israel’s most decorated slider — but he was only retired on the track. He decided that the next step in his mission to create his future foundation was to get an MBA.
Coming from MIT with a degree in mechanical engineering, Edelman was an attractive B-school prospect. He was admitted to Yale SOM in part because of the school’s support for nonprofit pursuits — in recent years as many as 5% of the school’s MBA grads have gone into the space, more than most peer schools. Edelman hoped that a Yale MBA would help him hone his management and fundraising skills.
“At a certain point, you need the help of others who are more experienced than you,” he says. “So far, the program has been of terrific value.”