As Israeli rhythmic gymnast Neta Rivkin puts her body through grueling training in the hope of a spot on Israel’s 2012 Olympics squad, her mind is ablaze with the image of the two medals she captured this year: a silver at the European Championships in Germany and a bronze at the September World Championships in France.
It’s not just that she was the first Israeli ever to win a medal at an international rhythmic gymnastics competition. To her, both wins were a gift to the memory of her father, Arkady, who died of cancer 18 months ago.
“I dedicate to my father the two great medals I earned. I believe Abba [Dad] sees all,” the 20-year-old tells ISRAEL21c.
Rhythmic gymnastics is a demanding discipline that combines ballet, rhythmic motions, acrobatics and dance using hand tools such as a ball, clubs, rope and ribbon. The sport is extremely exacting and calls for extraordinary levels of synchronization and coordination.
Rivkin, 20, won her recent medals for her individual hoop routines. At Montpelier, she ranked just behind two Russian teammates — the current Olympic champion, Evgenia Kanaeva, and Daria Kondoakova. She also placed in the top 10 in the ball routine finals. Only one other Israeli ever won a medal in gymnastics on the international level: Alexander Shatilov, who took home a bronze for floor exercise in 2009, representing the better-known artistic gymnastics.
Rivkin, who competed at the 2008 Games in Beijing in a group of five Israeli gymnasts, went to Montpelier with one other Israeli, Victoria Filanovsky.
“I was born in Israel in Petah Tikva to parents who immigrated from St. Petersburg in 1991,” Rivkin says. “I’m an only child. Abba was also a sportsman — he was a basketball player.”
From a tender age, she gravitated to hoops of a different kind. “I’ve been doing this sport from about age six,” she says. “I practice pretty much all the time — twice a day, eight to 10 hours a day, at the Wingate Institute near Netanya and at Hadar Yosef in Tel Aviv.”
Rivkin was among top-tier competitors from 20 countries who came to Holon for the 2011 International Grand Prix for Rhythmic Gymnastics last March. It was the 10th consecutive year that the event was held in this Tel Aviv suburb. This is significant because Israel is the only non-European country to host the elite international competition, held six times a year in different locations since 1995.
The year before, Rivkin had achieved fifth place in the European championships, at the time the highest international ranking any Israeli rhythmic gymnast had ever achieved. Now she’s got the silver (and the international bronze) to prove how far she’s come.
“I was surprised to win [the bronze], but at the same time, I believed it was possible,” says Rivkin. She reports that as an Israeli athlete, she is treated with respect at international competitions from Moscow to Beijing and many cities in between.
Her peers from other countries “love coming to Israel, because it’s a friendly, accepting nation. They especially like the tours and the weather here.”
Finding its rhythm
Rhythmic gymnastics gained popularity at the turn of the 20th century, mostly in the former Soviet Union, but wasn’t included as an Olympic event until 1984. Germany, Switzerland, Israel, China and Japan were cited by the International Gymnastics Federation as “emerging nations” at the 2010 world championships. Some 46 rhythmic gymnastics associations are affiliated with the Israeli Rhythmic Gymnastics.
“This sport has been around for many years, but only lately is it getting popular,” says Rivkin. “With every competition, the level is getting higher and gymnasts are getting into finals and winning medals. We really entered the Israeli consciousness because of the last Olympics.”
Only women compete in Olympic rhythmic gymnastics and all routines are performed to music. During individual routines of about a minute and a half, the apparatus must be in constant motion. Athletes win points for the variety of shape, amplitude, direction, plane and speed of movements.
The hoop routine, at which Rivkin excels, includes jumps, leaps and pivots incorporating rolls over the body or on the floor, rotations around the hand or other parts of the body, throws and catches and passing over or through the hoop, with swings, circles and figure eights.
Rivkin is training harder than ever to qualify for her second Olympics Games. “I’m going into this more mature and experienced, with the goal of proving myself,” she says.
In what little spare time Rivkin has, she prefers “to be by myself, listening to music, reading or being with people I love.”
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