“Are they fighting? I’m done with my day, I’m not helping,” laughs Yarden Gerbi as journalists battled to win a strategic place at the reception in her honor. The setting: the Rio hotel where she’s staying after she won a bronze medal for judo on Tuesday.
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The bronze was Israel’s first Olympic medal in eight years, so since Israel has won only eight Olympic medals in its history, Gerbi was phoned by both the prime minister and the president.
Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev, who was present at the event, waited patiently to get her moment in the sun. Regev wasn’t as bold as her predecessor, Limor Livnat, who jumped on Gal Fridman when he won a gold medal for sailing in 2004, but Regev did everything to make herself part of the action.
None of that mattered to Gerbi, 27. “I dreamed of this a few nights ago. You know the dream is achievable, but it feels distant. A few nights before the competition I dreamed I’d finish third in Rio,” she says.
“I told my psychologist, Noam Eyal, that I didn’t know if that was good or bad, because I wanted gold. Last night I dreamed that the Cuban threw me and I lost, but then the judges reversed the decision and I won.”
Reality was more complicated: an exhausting day of grappling, a dubious ruling that led to a loss in the quarterfinal against Brazilian Mariana Silva, and a cut lip. “You don’t feel pain,” she says. “The adrenalin burns.”
On Monday, Israeli judoka Sagi Muki lost to Georgia’s Lasha Shavdatuashvili in the men’s bronze medal match. But Gerbi’s battle against the Brazilian stirred controversy as the Israel Judo Association accused the referee of siding with Silva in a call that could have won Gerbi the fight.
Maybe all the controversy gave Gerbi a physical and mental advantage over Japan’s Miku Tashiro in the battle for the bronze.
“I knew she was coming from the semifinal and was shattered,” Gerbi says. “She had a four-minute battle and I knew how she felt. I had to open strong.”
Expectations were high of Gerbi ahead of the Rio Games.
“You had me marked and constantly told me I had to deliver a medal. The moment the pressure is internal and I want it inside, nothing can stop me. Whenever I was told that this was my first Olympics, I answered that I didn’t need anything more; if you get one chance, you take it,” she says.
“It’s strange that this is my personal dream and all of Israel is experiencing it. I received everything I needed regarding training, support and encouragement. I still haven’t digested things, I haven’t had a moment to myself, but I’m very happy.”
Some say Israelis aren’t built for sports, Gerbi says. “But when you believe in yourself, work at 100 percent capacity and conduct yourself professionally, anything is possible,” she adds. “I love what I do, I chose the most amazing sport in the world. Now I’ll have time to have fun – something I’ve forgotten how to do.”
Twenty-four years have gone by since Yael Arad became the first Israeli to win an Olympic medal; now Gerbi is the second Israeli woman to win one.
“It’s a great honor to follow Yael,” Gerbi says. “She inspired me from childhood. It all began there. She was with me throughout.”
Arad is a senior member of the Israeli Olympic committee in Rio. “I have a special relationship with Yarden, who’s like a little sister to me,” Arad told Haaretz, hoarse with excitement, outside the judo hall in Rio. “It’s been almost a generation since I did it, at age 25.”
Yet even the experienced Arad wasn’t expecting the wave of joy that swept over her with Gerbi’s victory. Arad remembers the elation of victory clearly – the satisfaction, the joy, the knowledge that she could accept any mission.
In recent years, Arad has been using the phrase “a natural candidate for a medal” – something that can be applied to Gerbi. “She went through crises and advanced gradually, the way I like. It wasn’t wham bam and over; no hocus pocus,” Arad says.
“An athlete who climbs the ladder rung by rung at the right pace is also mentally stronger. He’s built for success and wants it. Sometimes you’re poised for success but can’t grasp it, can’t contain it. Yarden was built slowly and experienced a great deal of difficulty.”
So how will the bronze affect Gerbi’s life?
“It will make her a complete person,” Arad says. “Her status isn’t like that of the judoka Sagi Muki or even Uri Sasson and others. When you win medals at all the major competitions, you know it’s achievable and that if you don’t do it, the disappointment will dog you for life. If she hadn’t won that medal, she would never be at peace with it.”