Israeli women gymnasts train long and hard for Beijing games

NETANYA (JTA) — On one side of a cavernous gym in Netanya, halfway between Tel Aviv and Haifa, six members of Israel’s first Olympic rhythmic gymnastics team warm up in a circle, chatting softly in a mix of Russian and Hebrew while stretching their legs in effortless splits on the mat.

Nearby, Irina Risenzon, a fellow gymnast competing in the individual category, is trying to master a leap in which her head must tilt backward to meet a bent leg.

It’s late afternoon, and the young gymnasts, ranging in age from 17 to 22, have been practicing for much of the day. In black T-shirts and black shorts, they appear to be in uniform, reinforcing a feeling of discipline and order that marks their training and routines.

“There are harder workouts and easier ones,” says Risenzon, 20, her auburn hair pulled into a bun. She sits on a wooden bench on the edge of the gym, watching the team begin its routine. The gymnasts practice about 10 hours a day.

“But you know why you are here,” she says. “For me, it’s my goal: the Olympics.”

Like every Olympian, her ultimate goal is the gold.

“That’s the dream,” Risenzon says, breaking into a smile, a marked contrast from the grimace she’s been wearing for the past two hours while trying to perfect her leaps and pivots before her hard-driving coach, Ira Vigdorchik.

Risenzon has been training with Vigdorchik since she was 9, the same year she and her family immigrated to Israel from Ukraine.

The language in the hall is predominately Russian. Six of the eight rhythmic gymnasts are immigrants from the former Soviet Union. The two Israeli natives are the daughters of immigrants, including Neta Rivkin, who at 17 is the youngest member of the Israeli Olympic team.

This large contingent of rhythmic gymnasts is why the Israeli squad has nearly as many women as men this year in its 39-member delegation to the Olympics in China.

The sport combines ballet, theatrical dance and gymnastics and is divided into individual, pair and team event categories. Ropes, hoops, balls, clubs and ribbons are used in the routines.

About 3,000 girls are training in gyms across the country, according to Rachel Vigdorchik, who oversees 300 of them at the gym she runs in Holon and at another branch in Jaffa for Arab girls.

Vigdorchik, who moved to Israel in 1979, was scheduled to perform in the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow, her hometown, but she stayed home when the Israeli team boycotted, along with other countries, in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Looking around the gym at the team members she has coached, most of them since they were little girls, Vigdorchik says they’re like family. She says this year’s Olympic Games are “closing a circle.”

Vigdorchik says she’s proud that rhythmic gymnastics, a sport brought to Israel by Russian immigrants in the early 1970s, has caught on.

“It’s very popular, but we need more government investment and more sponsors,” she says, echoing a common complaint of Israel’s sporting community.

For those who grew up in the Soviet system, where cultivating sports and athletes was a top national priority, the contrast in Israel can be jarring.

Ela Samotalov, the coach for the team event, came in 1991 from Minsk, where she helped coach the Belarus national team. She says she is still getting accustomed to Israel’s more spartan sports culture.

“There is no status to being a coach here in Israel,” she complains.

The Soviet-style training, with its strict discipline and demands, can seem off-putting to native-born Israelis, Samotalov says. This is part of what unites the Russian-born gymnasts — a shared understanding of the dedication needed to excel that comes from growing up in families versed in a more intense approach to sports.

“But the sabras are learning well; it will just take time,” Samotalov says of the Israelis. “Sports is not a miracle. It’s hard work.”

Samotalov is encouraged by the homegrown talent of one of her longtime charges, Neta, who has improved consistently at competitions this year.

“My goal is to do the best I can,” Neta says of Beijing. “It’s so special, going out there in front of that huge audience.”

Not far away, Risenzon laughs as she recalls her introduction to the sport when she was a little girl living near Kiev.

“I was considered sickly, always getting the flu,” she recalls. “So my parents were told that to strengthen my body, I should do sports, and the closest gym to our house was for rhythmic gymnastics.”

When she was 4, Risenzon’s Olympic career was nearly derailed by coaches who deemed her too pudgy to excel in the sport. Her baby fat long gone, she finished seventh last September in the World Championships.

Risenzon talks about the deep concentration she tries to maintain during her routines — tuning out the clapping crowds, the cameras and the competition. Relief and satisfaction come only after a successful routine is completed.

“Then I think about everything,” she says. “In the midst of it all, I’m focused on the next move.”

“But I love to perform,” Risenzon says, her deep-brown eyes shining as she describes her Olympic routines, which include a playful number set to Indian music and another with a samba tune.

Despite her immigrant origins, she has no identity dilemmas, she says. “I’ve felt deeply connected here,” Risenzon says, “and when I see the Israeli flag flying I get goose bumps.”

College Finals Test Gymnasts’ Mettle

Two Jewish gymnasts, University of Denver’s Ashley Shible and University of Florida’s Orley Szmuch, are tumbling toward success at the NCAA’s National Collegiate Women’s Gymnastics Championships, held April 15-17 at UCLA’s legendary Pauley Pavilion.

For Szmuch the competition is both a joyful homecoming and opportunity to best her 2003 scores, but for Shible it’s the last hurrah of a successful college career.

Shible, a two-time Colorado Sportswoman of the Year, comes to the nationals without her team. She and teammate Heather Huffaker qualified as individual all-around competitors, but the University of Denver Pioneers failed to qualify.

“It’s a little scary to go without a team, but I’ve been here before, and I know what to expect,” said Shible, who went to the championships with her team in 2001 and as an individual in 2002.

As a child, Shible attended Sunday school and she still celebrates Jewish holidays when she’s home with her family.

“I think about the holidays, and try to celebrate them at school, but it’s harder when I’m on my own,” said Shible, whose family lives in Palm Harbor, Fla.

In her freshman year at Denver, the 5-foot-2 Shible became the school’s first freshman All-American gymnast since 1983, won Denver’s Freshman of the Year award, broke the school’s all-around record and then went on to break her own record — twice. In her college career, Shible has scored three perfect 10s, is the lone gymnast in Denver history to score a 10 on the vault and has two signature vaults name after her.

“Vault’s my favorite event. When you land a move that no one else has ever done, they name it after you. So now there’s a Shible 1 and a Shible 2,” said the gymnast, who won four vault titles, two all-around titles and one uneven bars title this season.

When not competing, Shible spends as much time as possible outdoors. She plays softball and other non-gymnastic sports. She’s even picked up fishing.

“When I first came to Denver, my boyfriend, who I’m still with, taught me how to fly fish,” Shible said. “I love it.”

Shible excels at academics as well. The senior biology major graduated high school with a 4.0 and is a three-time University of Denver academic bronze medalist. After graduation, she hopes to have a career in animal training.

“My dream is to work with dolphins, but I’m happy working my way up,” Shible said.

She currently works with sea otters, river otters and tigers at her internship with Denver’s Ocean Journey.

Shible has never been to Los Angeles and is as excited about exploring the city this week as she is about the championship meet.

“My excitement’s split about 50-50. I should have some extra time before the competition and I can’t wait to see all the sites,” she said.

Shible hasn’t put any added pressure on herself for her final collegiate gymnastics appearance.

“This is my last meet,” said Shible, who graduates this spring. “So I want to do well, but I want to have fun more than anything.”

For Orley Szmuch, this week’s national championship marks her homecoming. Szmuch lived in Northridge until age 11. Her family lived in several cities in the West afterward, but her parents have since moved back to Burbank.

“I’m so excited to be competing in Los Angeles in front of my parents, sister and cousins,” said Szmuch, who sees her family just once a year during winter break. “It’s such a benefit for me to have them there.”

Szmuch attended religious school as a youngster, but found it difficult to balance with her practice schedule. “Gymnastics took over and I wasn’t able to continue with Hebrew school. I was never bat mitzvahed — but my parents would have liked that,” said Szmuch, whose family currently belongs to a synagogue.

Szmuch, who stands at 4-foot-11.5, was a top-three finisher in six of her 10 all-around performances this season. She was named Southeastern Conference Gymnast of the Week on Jan. 20, her third such honor in her collegiate career. She was the NCAA South Central Region vault co-champion with a season-best 9.95 and was named runner-up in the regional all-around with a season-best 39.60. Her freshman year, she was NCAA Central Region vault champion and was named SEC Freshman of the Year.

“Floor is the most fun event,” said Szmuch who earned 2003 All-American second team honors for her floor exercise in the NCAA Championships’ team competition.

“But, I love practicing bars. It’s an exhilarating event. It’s such an amazing feeling to fly through the air,” said Szmuch, whose collegiate best on bars is a 9.975.

The powerhouse gymnast almost didn’t attend Florida because the tape she sent to the athletic department was returned to her unopened.

“I had the wrong address, but I didn’t know it. Then one of my coaches ran into one of the Florida coaches and talked me up,” Szmuch said.

She resent the tape, visited the school and knew it was the right match.

“I was blown away. I instantly fit in; there’s an amazing support staff, and there’s just so much the school offers.”

Attending college so far from home hasn’t been easy on the gymnast, so she depends on a close-knit group of girlfriends.

“I moved from the West Coast, and don’t have any family nearby. So the girls on the team are like family to me,” said Szmuch, who rooms with teammate Sheri Owens, and Gator track team members Krystle Moss and Sara Cooper.

Szmuch plans to stay with gymnastics after graduation, but she has additional career goals.

“I want to work with people and make a difference,” the junior sociology major said. “I’d love to work for the [Anti-Defamation League].”

For now she’s focused on the championships. “Hopefully my experience will help me be a little more relaxed than my first time here,” said Szmuch, who attended the 2003 Championships with her Gator team. “I’m more of a veteran this year and want to help out the freshman on the team as we head to L.A.”

Offering advice to younger gymnasts who hope to compete at the collegiate level, Szmuch said: “You have to enjoy what you do and make sure you’re doing you’re sport for yourself. I love this sport; that’s what’s kept me going for 15 years and keeps me going now.”

The NCAA Women’s Gymnastics Championships will be held
April 15-17 at UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion. For ticket information, go to