WHILE IT wasn’t a shock for Yarden Gerbi to win an Olympic medal, the valiant manner in which she rallied back from a tough quarterfinal loss for bronze on Tuesday night is a lesson in determination and perserverence that any athlete can learn from..
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Inspiration comes in all shapes and sizes.
When Yarden Gerbi was three years old, she saw judoka Yael Arad win Israel’s first Olympic medal on TV, claiming a silver at Barcelona 1992. Gerbi asked her mother “how can I buy a ticket to the Olympics?” Almost 24 years to the day Arad made history, it was Gerbi’s turn to go down in Israeli sporting folklore on Tuesday night.
She “bought” her ticket to the Olympics with endless hours of excruciating training since she was a child. But Gerbi has never settled for mere participation in events.
She competes to win. Gerbi needed every bit of that spirit to claim the bronze medal at the women’s judo under-63 kilogram event on Tuesday, clinching Israel’s eighth medal since making its Olympic debut 64 years ago.
It had been 2,991 days, or a little under eight years, since an Israeli last scaled the podium at the Olympics. Windsurfer Shahar Zubari was the last to do so, taking a bronze at Beijing 2008.
For the first Summer Games since Seoul 1988, Israel didn’t win any medals in London 2012, turning up the heat on the country’s representatives ahead of Rio.
Gerbi has been under intense pressure to scale the Olympic podium for over three years since she became the first Israeli to be crowned judo world champion in 2013.
“I don’t care about pressure,” said Gerbi in what surely sounds like an arrogant statement to anyone who doesn’t know her or watched her perform on Tuesday. “I’m here to win. To give my heart and soul to win.
“Please don’t wake me up. I have realized my dream.”
Gerbi was unsurprisingly elated following the roller-coaster day, which was a fitting culmination to her career to date.
She received a bye into the second round on Tuesday where she faced Cuba’s Maricet Espinosa. She found herself in an early hole but bounced back and earned an ippon, judo’s version of a knockout, by pinning down Espinosa for 15 seconds. Gerbi was the favorite in her quarterfinal match-up against Brazil’s Mariana Silva. However, with no score being registered in the four minutes of regulation, the battle went into golden score in which the first judoka to get on the board wins.
After 1:58 minutes in search of a golden score, Silva registered a yuko and progressed to the last four, a heartbreaking defeat for Gerbi who felt she was treated unfairly by the referees in a contest she controlled.
A two-hour break followed, giving Gerbi plenty of time to fume over the frustrating loss. But coach Shani Hershko, who has guided her since she was a child, refused to even talk about what happened in the quarterfinal, insisting Gerbi had to move on. The defeat sent Gerbi to the repechage where she knew she would need two wins to take a bronze.
She displayed her best judo of the day in the evening session, beating China’s Junxia Yang in her first bout before overcoming Japan’s Miku Tashiro in the battle for the bronze.
“I had a tough time recovering from the loss in the quarterfinal,” said Gerbi, who also won a silver medal at the World Championships in 2014 and has claimed three medals at the European Championships, a silver in 2012 and bronzes in 2013 and 2015. “People don’t know the sacrifices I have made since a young age but it was all worth it. I always believed in myself and it means so much to me to make so many people happy.”
Gerbi may excel in a combat sport, but Israel couldn’t have asked for a better role model. She is a class act both on and off the mat with a charming character and smile that makes you melt.
Israelis everywhere were captured by her charisma on Tuesday night. Perhaps there was even some young girl out there inspired by her triumph.
Gerbi didn’t only win Israel’s eighth Olympic medal on Tuesday, but she may well have sown the seeds for future blue-and-white medalists.