After cementing its status as the country’s leading Olympic sport with two medals at the Rio Games, Israeli judo continues to go from strength to strength.
The European Judo Championships will be held in Israel for the first time between April 26 and 29 at the Drive- In Arena in Tel Aviv, giving blue-and-white fans a rare chance to see with their own eyes big names of the likes of Ori Sasson chasing a place on the podium, as well as the country’s up-and-coming judokas hoping to make their mark.
Among Israel’s rising stars are 23-year-old Timna Nelson Levy and 18-year-old Gefen Primo, who make up for whatever they lack in experience with ambition.
Nelson Levy will be competing in her third European Championships, winning a bronze medal in her debut at the event two years ago, while Primo will be taking part in the continental showcase for the first time.
But both are equally focused and optimistic of achieving the same goal, scaling the top of the podium in Tel Aviv and hearing the Hatikvah national anthem in front of the home fans.
With Olympic medalist Yarden Gerbi and fellow Rio Olympian Linda Bolder retiring, and with Gili Cohen out injured, Israel’s national women’s team to the championships in Tel Aviv will include many names local sports fans are unfamiliar with.
That could all change by the end of the month as the youngsters look to shine in the spotlight of a rare home event.
“I feel really good and I’m aspiring for the top. I believe in my abilities and my preparations have been excellent,” Nelson Levy told The Jerusalem Post
. “I’ve experienced a good year so far and I feel that I’m really ready.”
Nelson Levy, who competes in the women’s under-57 kilogram event, won medals in each of her past two events. She has been extremely consistent since making her breakthrough by taking a surprise bronze medal at the European Championships in Kazan, Russia two years ago, never finishing lower than seventh place in any competition.
She finished with a bronze at her last preparation event, a Grand Prix competition in Tbilisi, Georgia at the end of March, which came on the back of the gold medal she won at the Grand Prix in Agadir, Morocco three weeks earlier.
“There is no doubt that was special. To hear the national anthem in an Arab country is something that is very moving,” said Nelson Levy, who is ranked No. 6 in the world in her weight-class. “I also faced a Moroccan opponent in the semifinal who didn’t shake my hand and the crowd was against me so that gave me even more motivation. But I have to say that I also got a lot of messages of support from Moroccans and that was very touching.”
Primo, who competes in the under- 52kg weight-class, won a bronze medal in Agadir, scaling the podium in her first-ever Grand Prix event at the senior level.
Primo, who only turned 18 two weeks ago, finished in seventh place at the Grand Prix in Antalya, Turkey this past weekend, a result she describes as disappointing despite her tender age.
“It didn’t go as well as previous competitions, but it is a lesson I guess I had to learn and it is good that it happened now,” explained Primo, who stockpiled medals at the junior level, including winning the gold medal at the European Youth Olympic Festival in Hungary last summer.
Both Nelson Levy and Primo could face in Tel Aviv stern competition from local rivals, not to mention European powerhouses.
Ma’ayan Greenberg, who competes in Nelson Levy’s weight-class, showed her potential by taking a bronze in Antalya, while Primo may have to contend with Betina Temelkova, who claimed a silver medal at the under-21 European Championships last year.
“We train together and know each other well. The competition only makes the both of us stronger. You can’t take your foot off the gas pedal at any stage and you always have to work hard,” noted Primo.
Primo beat Temelkova in the battle for the bronze medal in Agadir and can’t wait for the championships in Tel Aviv to begin after experiencing the home support during the under-23 continental championships held at the Drive-In Arena in November 2016.
“The experience of competing in Tel Aviv was amazing. I was so bummed that I couldn’t go far in the competition as I didn’t know when I’d have a similar opportunity to compete in front of a home crowd,” said Primo. “As soon as I heard that the European Championships would be held in Tel Aviv this year I knew I would do my all to compete there.”
Nelson Levy is equally excited, but knows it is crucial to maintain her cool.
“It is really exciting that an event of this level is being held in Israel in front of the local fans and our friends and family. But that is something I’m trying not to think about too much.
I’ll be ready the way I am for every competition and I’m coming in with the expectation of winning a medal,” she said. “I’m in a zone. I’m really focused on this competition, thinking about it day and night. I go to sleep thinking about what I need to do and get up with the same attitude. Everything I do during my day, for example what I eat, is focused on this.”
Primo echoed a similar sentiment.
“You can be ranked No. 1 and get knocked out after one second. You can’t start thinking about what might happen if you win or lose or even think about the need to be focused because then you won’t be focused.
You need to remain practical and think about what you need to do at that moment in the bout. Always think forward,” she explained, before adding that she doesn’t enter a competition if she doesn’t plan on winning the gold medal.
“Hearing the national anthem while standing at the top of the podium in Tel Aviv would be the most exciting thing in the world. I really hope I’ll be able to achieve that.”