Israel's rhythmic gymnasts celebrate their team gold medals at the 2016 Rhythmic Gymnastics European championships in Holon, Israel. Israel's rhythmic gymnasts celebrate their team gold medals at the 2016 Rhythmic Gymnastics European championships in Holon, Israel. Israel's rhythmic gymnasts celebrate their team gold medals at the 2016 Rhythmic Gymnastics European championships in Holon, Israel. (Photo: Thomas Coex / AFP/Getty Images)

Young gymnastics squad ready for Rio stage

After winning its first-ever European Championship, confidence is high for Israeli team heading into the Summer Olympics.

Israel’s rhythmic gymnasts are in top form ahead of the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. They've won team and individual medals in Grand Prix, World Cup and European Championship events at competitions throughout the spring and summer and will be among the country's hopes for a medal in Brazil.

In June, the five-member team won its first-ever gold medals at the European Championships held on home turf in the Israeli city of Holon on the Mediterranean coast. Yuval Filo, Alona Koshevatskiy, Ekaterina Levina, Karina Lykhvar and Ida Mayrin proved superior in the clubs and hoop event and took a silver medal in ribbons.

On Sunday, the team added another gold to its coffers in the ribbons event narrowly topping the reigning Olympic champion Russian team by just 0.15 points, as well as a silver medal in the group all-around competition at the International Federation of Gymnastics (FIG) World Cup Final in Baku, Azerbaijan.

Rhythmic gymnastics differs from artistic gymnastics in the type of apparatuses used – ribbons, hula hoops, balls and clubs instead of bars, balance beam, vault and floor – but the level of difficulty and skill required is every bit as intense, combining complex choreography with elements of acrobatics and ballet.

“Rhythmic gymnastics is a very young sport because [the girls] start at 6," said Israeli team coach Ira Vigdorchik. "So when they are 12, they are going to the World Championship, Europe Championship. So they know from a very young age how to be focused, how to do, and how to give from inside."

The sport originated in the former Soviet Union and has been part of the Olympic program since the 1984 Games in Los Angeles. Russian athletes continue to dominate, but the Israelis look prepared to give them a run for the gold medal.

“It is a realistic target to win a medal in Rio, but we are not thinking about it,” said team captain Koshevatskiy.

The experience of standing on the podium is bound to have a positive effect on any athlete ahead of the Olympics. “When you’re standing on the podium, and you see that flag, you feel so proud and happy,” said Ida Mayrin.

Ahead of the Baku World Cup, gymnast Neta Rivkin, who has been selected to carry the Israeli flag in the opening ceremonies, said her main goal was to perform her whole program well and to be confident in her readiness for Rio. “I will focus on performing the elements and will do my best to get ready in the best way,” she said.

In Rio, the 25-year-old Rivkin will make her third Olympic appearance in the individual events, which are held separately from the team events. Rivkin missed the European Championships due to an ankle injury, but earned a bronze medal in Baku in the ball and just missed the podium in the ribbon competition, finishing fourth.

The XXXI Olympiad will kick off on Friday, Aug. 5. Medals in rhythmic gymnastics will be awarded on the final two days of competition, Aug. 20-21.

Rhythmic gymnast Neta Rivkin of Israel shows off her skills in the individual hoop competition on the final day of the 2015 European Games.Rhythmic gymnast Neta Rivkin of Israel shows off her skills in the individual hoop competition on the final day of the 2015 European Games. (Photo: Dan Mullen/Getty Images)

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