Sinai Says: Gerbi’s gold-medal talent matches her sparkling character

Cheaters excluded, there is no such thing as an undeserving world champion.

Yarden Gerbi 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Yarden Gerbi 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Cheaters excluded, there is no such thing as an undeserving world champion. However, there have been few, if any, global judo champions as worthy of their title as Yarden Gerbi.
It wasn’t just the spectacular fashion in which the 24-year-old Israeli steamrolled her opponents, triumphing in all five of her battles with an ippon – judo’s version of a knockout.
It was also the path which Gerbi had taken to the top of the world and the example she set to us all with her sporting conduct.
Gerbi had shown plenty of promise from a young age, but until last week she spent much of her career in the shadow of compatriot Alice Schlesinger. Both Gerbi and Schlesinger compete in the under- 63 kilogram category and it was the latter who was the first to burst onto the scene, becoming the darling of local judo.
Schlesinger represented Israel in the 2008 Beijing Olympics at just 20 years of age after winning a bronze medal at the European Championships. She went on to claim two more bronzes in the continental championships – in 2009 and 2012 – while also finishing third in the World Championships in 2009.
Despite Schlesinger’s steady success and the fact that each country is only allowed to send to the Olympics a single judoka in any given weight category, Gerbi never wavered and continued to work hard in the belief that she would one day reap the rewards.
The Netanya native gave Schlesinger a real run for her money ahead of the London Games, winning a silver medal at the European Championships last year, but it was Alice who once again traveled to the Olympics, edging Gerbi according to the Olympic Committee of Israel’s point system.
Following such desperate frustration, no one would have blamed Gerbi had she decided to try a different weight category or perhaps even turned her focus to life away from sport.
However, the disappointment only made Gerbi more motivated, and with Schlesinger falling out with the Israel Judo Association and not even competing in the World Championships in Rio de Janeiro, Gerbi finally had the spotlight to herself.
Gerbi entered the championships as the world No. 1 in the under- 63kg category, the first Israeli ever to achieve such a status, and she completely decimated the field.
She needed just 43 seconds to defeat world No. 2 Clarisse Agbegnenou in the final, with the Frenchwoman losing consciousness following the Israeli’s near-deadly maneuver.
Gerbi quickly realized that she had accomplished the achievement of a lifetime, but she didn’t celebrate or even smile in the moments that followed the referee’s declaration of her victory.
Gerbi’s only concern at the time was to the well-being of her friend Agbegnenou, who lost consciousness after refusing to throw in the white towel.
Agbegnenou soon recovered and Gerbi finally caught her head in disbelief and emotionally embraced coach Shani Hershko who has guided her since she was a child.
By displaying restraint and recognizing that the health of her rival far exceeded the importance of winning a gold medal, even in the final of the World Championships, Gerbi became a role model for true sporting behavior.
For over two decades judo has been one of Israel’s most successful sports, but until Gerbi came along last Thursday, no local judoka had ever won a gold medal at the World Championships.
Yael Arad (1991 – bronze, 1993 – silver), Oren Smadja (1995 – silver), Arik Ze’evi (2001 – silver) and Schlesinger (2009 – bronze) all previously won medals at the Worlds, but Gerbi was the first Israeli to scale the top of the podium.
Arad (Barcelona 1992 – silver), Smadja (Barcelona 1992 – bronze) and Ze’evi (Athens 2004 – bronze) also all won Olympic medals, which is naturally Gerbi’s next goal.
A lot can happen in the three years until the 2016 Rio Games, but Gerbi couldn’t have experienced a better post-Olympic year and has already got very fond memories from the next host city.
Gerbi has yet to return to Israel, going on a three-week vacation directly from Brazil. She will receive a NIS 100,000 bonus from the Olympic Committee of Israel when she returns, but with a monthly stipend of around NIS 5,000, she was still eager to save on the price of the airfare by going on holiday while she’s already in South America.
Surely her new title of world champion will finally help her attract a sponsor, but it should not be forgotten that Gerbi made her way to the top of her sport despite the lack of financial support.
It seems, however, that nothing was going to deny her the success she craved.
On her website Gerbi quotes three-time Olympic champion Gail Devers: “Keep your dreams alive. Understand that to achieve anything requires faith and belief in yourself, vision, hard work, determination, and dedication. Remember all things are possible for those who believe.”
Well said and even better fought.
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