For the first time in its history, the Israeli rhythmic gymnastics team won a gold medal at the European Championships last weekend for a group routine set to the Hebrew pop hit, “Rak Rotza Lirkod” (She Just Wants to Dance). What’s more is they did it at home, as Israel hosted the competition for the first time—37 countries were represented at the three-day tournament, which cost an estimated $2 million to stage—in a new arena in Holon, South of Tel Aviv.
Cheered on by wildly enthusiastic local fans, team members Yuval Filo, Alona Koshevatskiy, Ekaterina Levina, Karina Lykhvar and Ida Marin took gold in the clubs and hoops category with a score of 18.316. Favorites Russia dropped to 8th place with 15.991 points. Spain and Bulgaria took silver and bronze, respectively.
In their ribbon routine, the Israel squad won a silver medal. Two days earlier, the team won a bronze in the all-around competition.
“We are so proud. We really enjoyed performing here,” said 18-year-old Koshevatskiy, the Israeli captain. “The crowd was amazing.”
The women-only sport of rhythmic gymnastics, which combines elements of acrobatics, and ballet with complex choreography and apparatus (ribbons, balls, clubs, hoops and ropes), originated in the former Soviet Union. It has been included in the Olympic Games since 1984 for individual athletes; in 1996, group competition began.
In Israel, this grueling sport is flourishing thanks to the Russian-speaking community. Nowadays, thousands of girls, some as young as five, train intensively after school and at weekends at local sport clubs around the country, competing in glittering Swarovski-covered leotards and full hair and makeup. Many dream of international success. Consequently, the tough, Russian-style discipline has brought rewards. Last summer, at the European Games in Azerbaijan, Israel won silver medals in the all-around and the clubs and hoops final, as well as a bronze medal in ribbons.
Achieving both gold and silver medals at this European Championships may be the push the current Israel team needs towards Olympic glory. Previous national teams reached the final in both the Beijing Olympics in 2008, and in 2012 in London.
“It is a realistic target to win a medal in Rio,” said Koshevatskiy, “but we are not thinking about it.”
For teammate Neta Rivkin, who turned 25 this week, the Rio Games will be her third and probably last Olympics. (She finished seventh overall in the London Olympics.) She was forced to pull out of this year’s European Championships due to an ankle injury. “This decision was made so that I’ll be fit to take part in Rio,” Rivkin wrote on her Facebook page. “I am putting in my maximum effort and power to do the very best at the Olympics.”
Lisa Sanders is a writer and investigative documentary maker based in Israel.