Neta Rivkin may not be Israel’s most successful or famous Olympian.
There are, however, very few athletes who have had such a profound impact on their sport as the one Rivkin has had on rhythmic gymnastics in Israel over the past decade.
Even though she won’t celebrate her 26th birthday until later this year, Rivkin enjoyed a long and extraordinary career as an Olympic athlete before bringing it to a close last month.
She represented Israel in the past three Olympics, one of only three women to ever do so in her sport.
Rivkin finished the individual allaround qualifiers in a disappointing 13th place in Rio last summer, but coming in seventh place in the final of the London Games four years earlier remains the best-ever finish for an Israeli gymnast.
Rivkin, who carried the Israel flag in the closing ceremony in Rio, took part in seven World Championships, participating in 16 finals, and in 11 European Championships, reaching 14 finals. She became the first Israeli to win medals in the World and European Championships in her sport, taking a silver medal in the clubs final at the Europeans in 2011 and a bronze medal in the hoop final at the Worlds later that year.
She won 47 medals in total in Grand Prix and World Cup events, and she even had an element named after her, with the ‘Rivkin’ being recognized by the International Gymnastics Federation in May 2016.
But Rivkin’s success goes far beyond any certain medal or the recognition she receives internationally.
Rivkin revolutionized the way her sport is perceived in Israel, first and foremost helping introduce rhythmic gymnastics to so many who had never even heard of it previously.
“There is no comparison between where the sport was when I started and where it is at the moment, especially regarding recognition and accomplishments,” Rivkin told The Jerusalem Post. “When I returned from the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and I spoke to people and told them that I’m a rhythmic gymnast they didn’t know anything about the sport.
“ Now rhythmic gymnastics receives a lot more coverage and the success has resulted in many more youngsters taking up the sport. There has been an extreme change for the better.”
It is safe to say that no athlete trains harder than rhythmic gymnasts, with Rivkin once commenting that she spends around 270 hours a month in training to prepare for a 90-second performance.
It is therefore hardly surprising that it is taking time to get used to life without the sport.
“I’m still not used to getting up in the morning and not going to train,” she admitted. “This isn’t like other sports because our sport takes up all your time and you don’t even have a possibility to combine it with something else.
“It is still very difficult because this was my entire life,” she explained. “But I’m very much at peace with the decision because I know how I changed my sport in Israel and I know what I achieved and all I gave in order to succeed. I really feel this is the right time for me to continue with my life and it is important for an athlete to retire at his prime. I feel this is the right moment for me.”
Rivkin said she didn’t rush to make a final decision as she wanted to be certain that the timing was right.
“It was important for me to make sure that I’m at peace with the decision,” she noted. “I knew I wouldn’t continue until the next Olympics, but I thought I might continue for another year or two. I took my time and understood that this is the right thing to do.
“I made this decision because I felt that I gave my all. I gave everything I could to the sport.”
Rivkin still doesn’t know exactly what she will do following the end of her gymnastics career, but she already holds one position, being elected last November as the chairman of the athletes’ committee at the Olympic Committee of Israel.
The athletes’ committee, which numbers nine members, has four representatives on the OCI’s council.
As chairman, Rivkin will also represent the interests of the athletes as a member of the OCI’s managing board.
“This is very close to my heart and it is very important for me to try and help improve conditions for the athletes,” said Rivkin. “Beyond that I’m still not sure what I want to do. I’ll see what options I have and I assume it will take a little time. But generally speaking, I want to remain involved in sport because I have knowledge and experience to pass on to the next generation.”
There is one project Rivkin is already planning to push forward during her four-year tenure as chairman.
“There is a stage when young athletes have already been earmarked because of their potential, but because they have yet to register a significant achievement at the senior level they still don’t receive enough support,” explained Rivkin.
“It is a critical stage and the lack of support can be significant. We need to set up special committees which will determine which athletes should receive additional support at this stage, not necessarily financial support but more help in training and equipment.”
Rivkin is certain she will remain part of the sporting world in some capacity in the future. She may no longer represent Israel on the floor, but she is still passionate about sport and is looking to build on the quantum jump she inspired in rhythmic gymnastics over the past decade. Her achievements in competition will eventually be equaled or bettered by another countrywoman, but her influence in promoting her sport in Israel will likely never be rivaled.