Timna Nelson-Levy is the hottest name in Israeli sports today.
Coming off of her gold medal performance in the under-57kg category at the Tel Aviv Grand Slam this past week, the judoka’s popularity has gone off the charts as she readies for her first Olympic Games, slated for Tokyo this coming summer.
The Jerusalem Post had the exclusive opportunity to speak with Nelson-Levy about her success to date, the sport she fell in love with, the pride she has for Israel as well as her roots which began in America and the incredible story of the Iranian judoka Saeid Mollaei, who competed in the Holy Land.
“First of all, winning a gold medal is the best feeling in the world,” began the 26-year old. “To win on your home soil is completely different and the excitement is double of what it would normally be. Two years ago in Israel when I won the gold medal, there were thousands of fans in the stands and they are so supportive. Israelis have a love for the spirit of judo.
“This time however, I missed them due to the coronavirus restrictions. Especially when I sang our national anthem, Hatikvah, at the top of the podium. But the entire week has been amazing as I received the love and support from people around the world and I’ve been answering their messages for days. It warms my heart.”
Nelson-Levy acknowledged how challenging holding a world class competition is during a pandemic and said that the Israel Judo Association (IJA), headed by Moshe Ponti, was able to go above for the needs of all of the athletes who arrived in the country.
“The International Judo Federation had very strict regulations that needed to be followed. The judokas had to go through a battery of COVID-19 tests before boarding the charter flights to Israel, once they arrived and the day before they competed. We were all isolated at the hotel and were only able to go out to train and to our bouts.
“Usually Grand Slam events are held in larger countries like Japan and France, while countries like Israel host Grand Prixs. Moshe Ponti, who was able to pull this off, deserves a huge amount of credit as well the Israel Judo Association – they just did an outstanding job. Despite all of the challenges, the competition was amazing as any I have gone to all over the world to compete and this one was perfect. All of the judokas came over to me and said how much they loved Israel because they received everything they required. This made me so proud.”
The Olympics were postponed last summer with the outbreak of the coronavirus and are now scheduled to take place in Japan this coming July and August. For Nelson-Levy, who has captured three golds, two silvers and seven bronze medals in various competitions since 2017, this will be her debut at the Games and believes that due to her hard work and deception she is primed for a big summer.
“I go into every competition with the same expectations; to finish with a medal and to be on top of the podium. That is because of how hard I work and what I feel I deserve. I am in incredible shape and I am going into the Games with expectations to win a medal. My coach, Shani Hershko, and I know that I deserve a medal and I know that with my abilities I can capture one. But when money-time comes, I have to prove it.”
Nelson-Levy’s roots began in the United States, the country where her parents – Shmuel from Boston and Laura from Cherry Hill, NJ – met and married. In 1985, the couple picked up and left everything behind to start their life in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Kiryat Yovel.
“My dad was a boxer and is now a stockbroker while my mom was a swimmer in school and is currently a tour guide. They have a big garden at our family home in Kiryat Yovel that she made into heaven.
“My mother just loves talking about Israel and taking people around the country. They made aliyah leaving their entire family behind because they are both very Zionistic and they both love Israel. My parents imbued their love of the country in me. I am so proud when I see the Israeli flag and I am so proud to be Israeli. I represent Israel, I represent Jerusalem and I represent our beautiful flag.”
Interestingly, Nelson-Levy didn’t begin training in judo until her mid-teens.
“As a child I began with mixed martial arts and at 15 I joined the Meitav Jerusalem Club under the direction of chairman Yoel Libster and we started to work together. I loved the competition and my dream was to get to the Olympic Games and to win a medal. I knew I had to change disciplines in order to make that happen.”
In 2010, Nelson-Levy became part of the National Team program with Hershko just as change was coming to the IJA.
“Women’s coach Shani Hershko, who is with me almost 24/7 and travels around the world for training and competitions, and men’s coach Oren Smadga came on board the same year and they completely changed the association that now has a big base of athletes. They worked a ton and what they did was absolutely crazy. Along with Moshe Ponti, they deserve a massive amount of credit and I’m so happy for them all when you see the results.”
As she moved up the ranks, Nelson-Levy began to place well in junior national team competitions and then in 2016, she surprised everyone with a bronze medal at the European Championships.
“No one expected me to do much at that tournament and the goal was to just gain experience. But I came back home with the bronze, went to more competitions and today I am ranked No. 7 in the world.”
Nelson-Levy appreciated what she was able to see and learn from Israeli 2016 Olympic bronze medalist Yarden Gerbi and has used that as inspiration for her own journey.
“Yarden was an outstanding athlete, one of the best that Israel has ever had. I saw her work day-in and day-out and she worked very, very hard. One of things that I try to do as well is to inspire young athletes that anything is possible.”
One of the big storylines in the world of judo over the past couple of years is that of Iranian judoka Mollaei, who left his birth country in order to compete as a free man. He now represents Mongolia and made his first ever trip to Israel.
Nelson-Levy is enamored by Mollaei’s bravery and what he stands for.
“He is an outstanding athlete and person. I love his judo style, but what he did was heroic. For him to come here to Israel, shows so much about who he is.
“After I won the gold medal, he congratulated me and I congratulated him when he won the silver. Sometimes he writes to me on Instagram to say good luck. I see him as a role model. Not many people could do what he did. When he got here, he received so much love from all of us and we took such good care of him with a training partner, masseuse, a dietician and he really felt our love. If there would have been fans at the event he would have started crying when the people would have called his name. He is a real mensch.”
For Israeli judokas such as Nelson-Levy to succeed, funding is key in order for them to perform at the top of their game. While the Israel Olympic Committee helps the athletes as they strive to represent the country and bring home medals, this is still a huge challenge for all involved as each judoka seeks out funding streams to be able to concentrate solely on the one goal that they have and that Israel has – to be the best and give the best as they compete as well for the Jewish people worldwide.
“Corporations and sponsorships are so critical for me to be the best at what I do and helps keep me focused on what the ultimate goal is, while keeping a quiet mind. Athletes need outside support in order to supplement the government funding. As the number one sport in Israel, which has been the most successful sport in the country, judo needs as much support as it can get to continue reaching the highest of heights and we are always looking for new partners to join us.”
The hopes and aspirations are high going into the Summer Games and Nelson-Levy doesn't want to mince words when it comes to the goal that she has set for herself.
“We have a strong women’s team and we can’t promise you that we will win a medal because you never know what can happen. But I can speak for myself and that is what I expect.”