Olympics: Seizing the day

For Israel's youngest Olympian, school can wait. The Olympics, however, won't.

Neta Rivkin 88 224 (photo credit: Avi Sirota)
Neta Rivkin 88 224
(photo credit: Avi Sirota)
Under pristine skies and a harsh sun, the trees are swaying slightly. The light breeze only barely alleviates the suffocating humidity that engulfs the Wingate Institute, but freedom is in the air for scores of young athletes who have come here to chase their athletic dreams. Laughter rings out as they lie around on the expansive lawns or amble along the concrete pathways. Elsewhere on the sprawling campus, Neta Rivkin is skipping about like the little girl she is, all of 17, as though she has not a care in the world. But she does. A rhythmic gymnast, she is the youngest member of Israel's Olympic delegation, and the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics are but a month away. In an oppressive gym soaked with the stench of sweat, she is once again going through her routine. The cream-colored walls around her are bare, save for the athletic legends looking down at her from above: Michael Jordan, mouth agape, the symbol of uncompromising competitiveness, salivating at the prospect of devouring his next opponent; Sean Elliott hanging in midair, the former San Antonio Spur being the first professional athlete to return from a kidney transplant; and the tennis player Mary Pierce, the unfortunate poster child of parental abuse. Music is playing in the background, intermittently interrupted by the shrill barking instructions of her coach. As the music grinds to a halt, the coach's instructions lower to a whisper and Rivkin collapses onto the mattress, limp and lifeless. Streams of sweat streak down her face. She raises a hand to mop her brow, and then buries it in the ground. She liftsone of her long, sinewy arms, bulging with veins, and gently massages her thigh. And then the music comes back on and Rivkin resumes the routine, her spindly rubber legs spanning far and wide like a compass, drawing impossible angles on the mattress that is her canvas. She twirls her batons, flinging one high in the air and completing a somersault before pinning down the other. But is she conducting the music, or does the music control her? THE STUNNING success of the diver Tom Daley, England's 13-year-old child prodigy, has provoked a debate over the price children pay for competing among men and women in front of the world in the corporate cash cow that is the Olympics, whether it is exorbitant or unworthy or perhaps even immoral. Rivkin has come to anticipate this line of questioning, and she cheerfully dismisses concerns over her lost childhood, absentmindedly tossing a baton in the air. "It's true," she admits, agreeing with the assessment that she inhabits a world separate from that of her peers. "I don't know what it's like to be a 'normal kid,' I've been a gymnast since I was six and I don't know anything else, but I don't think I'm missing out on anything. Not everyone qualifies for the Olympics." Doubts occasionally flit through her mind, but she dispels them as surely as she does everyone else's. "I would sometimes like a bit more freedom, but I need to be focused on the Olympics now. Every time that moment comes along that I feel that I can't go on, I remember what I'm doing this for, and then I remember that I have to work for it." Rhythmic gymnastics is the most demanding of sports in terms of training, Rivkin says with pride. She has in essence been training for more than 11 straight years, with no vacation to speak of. "Perhaps after the Olympics we'll get a week off," she giggles. She knows the day will come when gymnastics will no longer dominate her life. She thinks of it occasionally, but has trouble visualizing it. These days she trains six days a week and often competes on the seventh. Once a week, but not every week, she's afforded a day off. She usually spends it running errands, seeing friends and family, trying to fit everything in. "When we're together we appreciate it more," she says, smiling, referring to her parents, "it becomes a special event." School, too, is something of a special event. She attends classes sparingly and concedes, "I feel weird when I'm in class." She credits her teachers with supporting her and helping her out, even as she recalls that not so long ago they were far more dubious of her priorities. But then, these Olympics came as a surprise to her, too. Watching the last Olympics in Athens at 13, she dared not dream of competing in Beijing. And so when she qualified at last September's World Championships she was shocked. "Even now it hasn't fully sunk in," she gushes. "It's huge!" Most special of all, clearly, are the Olympics. She confesses that she has no idea what to expect, and it's the first time all day that she expresses any uncertainty. She deposits the hula hoop in the storage area and walks out of the gym and into the sunlight, off to her room for a short period of rest before the next practice. Long and lithe, the wind coming off the sea blows in her face. She blows right past it, not giving it a second thought, not even a glance. It's the second week of July, and 17-year-olds all across the country are finishing up those last few matriculation exams before they head off to the beach or whatever it is that they choose to do with their freedom. But for Neta Rivkin there is no holiday, not big nor small, and there never has been. There are no matriculation exams, and there have been but a few. There will come a time for them, for getting her driving license, for lounging about in the sun, at the beach. "I can make up all of this later, but the Olympics won't be there for long," she says.