How Linoy Ashram Turned the COVID Confusion Into Olympic Gold

The first non-Russian to win the Games' individual event in rhythmic gymnastics since 1996 tells Haaretz how the new atmosphere got her and her coach thinking about upping her difficulty level

Itamar Katzir
Itamar Katzir
Linoy Ashram posing with her gold medal at Ben-Gurion Airport this week.
Linoy Ashram posing with her gold medal at Ben-Gurion Airport this week.Credit: Menahem Kahana / AFP
Itamar Katzir
Itamar Katzir

Linoy Ashram may have landed at Ben-Gurion Airport on Wednesday, but she’s still floating on air. The last time the rhythmic gymnast was in Israel she was a candidate for an Olympic medal. Now she’s gold.

So it’s a little surprising to learn that she drove alone from Rishon Letzion to the gala event held for her and the other gold-medal gymnast, Artem Dolgopyat, at the Wingate Institute in Netanya. No parents, no coach, alone in the car.

She still can’t believe what she did a week ago in Tokyo. “It’s incredible, I still have flashbacks that take me back there – maybe it’s a dream,” she said in an interview. “But I tell myself: ‘No Linoy, it’s not a dream. You did it. You made your dream come true.’ It’s crazy.”

In fact, it seems very few people believed that Ashram, 22, would go all the way to the top. “I knew I was capable of standing on the podium if I performed my exercises cleanly,” she says. “I never imagined it would be gold.”

Throughout the Olympics Ashram became the face of the Israeli team, the nation’s darling. There’s something magic when she gets on the floor, something that brings together even the most jaded of Israelis.

“The truth is, I don’t know why out of so many athletes people felt connected to me,” she says. “Even people who don’t care about sports. I am who I am – I’m not doing anything different for others.”

Ashram going for the gold in Tokyo.Credit: Mike Blake / Reuters

This status brought her to Tokyo with the weight of the whole country on her back. “I felt there was a ton of expectations of me. Whenever I met people – at the country club or on the street – they told me ‘you’ll take the gold,’ ‘you have to return with a medal,’ and things like that,” she says.

“As much as I could, I tried not to listen to them, not to put myself under more pressure. And I tried to look at the good side – that many people wanted me to succeed, not that they were pressuring me to return with a medal. That lowered the pressure.”

But not entirely. Her coach, Ayelet Zussman, and her physiotherapist, Natalie Brettler, said Ashram had a hard time settling down at the team’s training camp in Japan ahead of the Games. She couldn’t sleep and was stressed; Zussman says she also lost weight.

“It was probably jet lag; I needed time to get used to it,” Ashram says, though her mistake in the hoop exercise showed how pressure could get to her.

“There was some confusion, I was sure I was called to the floor and it turned out I wasn’t. I went out and came back, and that exit apparently hurt my concentration,” she says.

“I was ready and stood in my pose and everything, and suddenly they told me no, go out and come back again. But after the exercise, Ayelet came and told me that the most important thing now was that ‘you have three more accessories with a very high difficulty level. Never mind what place you’re in now, you can still wind up in the finals.’”

The gymnast on the podium taking a bite out of her medal. Credit: Lionel Bonaventure / AFP

Russian trolls

In those finals, Ashram performed three perfect exercises and made one mistake with the ribbon, which didn’t prevent her from winning the gold at the expense of a stunned Dina Averina. The whole world, not just the Russian, was surprised as well.

The New York Times, which chose the most surprising moments of the Olympics, opened with Ashram’s win at the expense of Averina and her identical twin, Arina, who didn’t even get on the podium in an event the Russians usually win.

“So it’s shocking that suddenly some Israeli nobody comes and overtakes them,” Ashram says. “None of them expected it, they went there with the attitude of ‘we’re going to win.’”

This may help explain the bitterness of Russian sports officials who released statements denouncing the judges. Some of them lashed out at Ashram or mocked her. The Israeli was also vilified on social media by Russian trolls.

“They wrote all kinds of things to me on Instagram, but I’m not responding,” she says. “Let everybody say whatever they want. I know what I did and what I achieved, and I know I earned it because I worked so hard. Nobody can take that away from me.”

And nobody can overestimate what Ashram has done for gymnastics. Even she realizes that her achievement – the first non-Russian to win the Olympic gold in the individual event since Atlanta 1996 – will change the sport.

Russia's Dina Averina, left, learning she wouldn't be winning the gold.Credit: Lionel Bonaventure / AFP

“I think my win will now open the door to more gymnasts, who will realize that even if you’re not Russian, you can win. You just need to work hard,” she says. “Maybe this situation, that Russia is always in first place, will change – they’ll see that another country can win.”

Even when she was growing up in Israel, Ashram was labeled the “non-Russian” gymnast. After all, most gymnasts in Israel are children of families who immigrated from the former Soviet Union.

But Ashram says she felt special, not like an outsider. She started gymnastics when she was 6 and was immediately sent to the national youth team. She fell in love with the sport and with the big tournaments. She began as a gymnast in the group event, but at 16 her incredible talent stood out in the individual competitions.

“I didn’t think I’d go so far. I remember when I would go to the Grand Prix in Holon when I was little – I never missed it – and after the competition I would always go behind the scenes, ask for autographs and pictures,” she says.

“These are the very best girls in the world, and I thought ‘how much fun it is for them, everyone loves them, they inspire girls, and any second now they’re going to be in the Olympics – it’s my dream.’ I never imagined that someday it would happen to me.”

Fans came out in droves to welcome Ashram at Ben-Gurion Airport on Wednesday.Credit: Ariel Schalit / AP

Strategy and tactics

When the coronavirus pandemic broke out, it seemed this dream might be buried. “It was the hardest period,” she says. “I felt at peak fitness, I was ready mentally and physically. It was depressing because you prepare for something for so much time, and suddenly they come and take it from you.”

Luckily for Ashram, the Olympics did take place – it can even be said the postponement helped her win the gold. “I had conversations with Ayelet, and she told me we had the chance to raise the difficulty level even more, to come with stronger exercises, and she was right,” Ashram says.

“My difficulty level rose by at least a point between 2020 and 2021, which is very significant. I think this year helped me a lot because I improved both in the level of my performance and the level of difficulty.”

So Zussman and Ashram raised the bar even though in recent months she didn’t make it to the podium in the world’s most important competitions – including the European Championships. She was suffering a clear problem with the ribbon.

“We made the routine more comfortable but also the difficulty level higher,” she says. “Some things are easier to do but they cost more, so we were simply smarter.”

Ashram keeping her eye off the ball as she wins in Tokyo.Credit: Ashley Landis / AP

Then there were the recordings made by Ira Vigdorchik – the coach of the group rhythmic gymnastics squad – who stepped down at the end of the Olympics. Shortly before the Tokyo Games, recordings were released of Vigdorchik saying that Ashram “has no class.”

“I think maybe I heard them once when they broadcast them and that was it. I really didn’t think about it,” Ashram says. “As I said about the Russians, everybody can think what they want. I’m busy with myself and listen only to what the people around me are saying.”

This attitude helped Ashram withstand the incredible pressure, the coronavirus hassles, the distance from home and the injuries that threatened her career such as a bad knee injury in 2017, a meniscus tear. In the end, she sacrificed a lot, but she believes it was worth it.

“I didn’t feel I missed out or gave up anything, because in the end I did what I love,” Ashram says. “All the things a normal girl or teenager at my age did and I didn’t do – I can make that up. The gymnastics, I can’t.”

She still doesn’t know if she will continue on to Paris in 2024. For now she needs to rest and savor her amazing accomplishment. “I think that I proved to the girls that it doesn’t matter what your ethnic background is or where you come from,” she says.

“As long as they do what they love, work hard and invest in it – even if it’s the hardest road in the world – they can dream big and fulfill their dreams. And it’s not only for girls, it’s for everybody. Every small child who dreams can fulfill their dream, it doesn’t matter what.”

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