Together as one: Avishag Semberg’s rapid rise to Israel Olympic glory

Jul 24, 2021 | Jews in Sports

Sometimes the unexpected provides the most pleasant of surprises and that’s exactly what Israel’s Avishag Semberg provided for the nation early on a Saturday morning in Tokyo. The blue-and-white women’s Taekwondo competitor ascended the podium at the Olympic Games after winning a bronze medal in the -49kg category surprising many, but not the 19-year old herself.

Semberg, who grew up in Gadera, just south of Rehovot perhaps was the only one who believed that she had a chance to come back to the Holy Land with a medal around her neck. Her belief, desire and determination at such a young age drove her to find a way to make sure that she didn’t come back home empty handed.

Those around the Israeli taekwondo circles were well aware of Semberg’s potential and understood that she very may well have a chance to win a medal so early in the games and that’s what happened, perhaps even surprising the Israel Olympic Committee with their medal hopes pinned to judo and rhythmic gymnastics.

Semberg and her partner 22-year old Nimrod Krivishkiy worked all year long to find a way to make it to the Olympic Games competing in various tournaments, but only one was able to earn their way to Tokyo as Avishag had to leave behind a disappointed Nimrod.

However, as each bout went by for Semberg in Japan, excitement continued to build at the family’s home packed with relatives watching on television thousands of miles away.

Training under Yechiam Sharabi at his martial arts club, Semberg continued to climb the ladder of success very quickly as she trained with Krivishkiy. In fact, Semberg’s ascent was faster than that of Krivishkiy as they dreamed of making it to the Games together as a couple.

Semberg took a liking to taekwondo already in first grade as she attended a 40 minute after school program, falling in love with the sport right away. In 6th grade, Semberg became a member of the Israel National Team and a year later flew to Poland with the team as her passion continued to grow.

Krivishkiy started attending Sharabi’s academy as a 5-year old and began to take part in competitions with the National team a few years later as the pair advanced together. Years went by and as the love for each other grew their desire to reach the Olympics did as well. The Games which were once viewed as a dream, started to become something tangible and a possible reality.

With the COVID-19 pandemic postponing the Olympics for a year, Semberg’s chances of punching her ticket to Tokyo were helped as she was able to put another year of experience under her belt and moved from the youth category to becoming a senior. In May of this past year, Semberg took part in the European Taekwondo Olympic Qualification Tournament held in Bulgaria and was able to fulfill the dream of representing Israel and qualifying for the Olympic Games.

Krivishkiy, unfortunately was not as lucky as he fell in the semifinals and then the third place bout as his chances of joining Semberg in Tokyo were put on hold.

Although disappointment filled the air for the couple, knowing that they would not be able to be together at the Games, Semberg prepared as best as she could knowing that competing in one of the martial arts at the Olympics as a 19-year old was a rarity and that she had a real chance to do something special. Not only becoming an Israeli Olympic medalist, but the youngest one.

Semberg eliminated Puerto Rico’s Victoria Stambaugh handily in the qualification contest, but then fell to the eventual gold medalist and 2016 Olympics bronze medal winner Panipak Wongpattanakit from Thailand.

Despite losing her Round of 16 matchup, Semberg was able to pull it together and win her repechage match up against Truong Thi Kim Tuyen from Vietnam as tension continued to build for Krivishkiy and the entire family.

Semberg then stepped in to face Rukiye Yıldırım from Turkey, a formidable foe who at the age of 30 was more than ten years her senior. Yıldırım, a European Champion who had won numerous medals in a variety of competitions, however, never one at the Olympics, was heavily favored to win her first.

The Israeli took a surprising 13:2 lead after the first round and stayed in front 16:9 after round two. But her Turkish opponent grabbed the advantage in the middle of the third round to go up 22:19. However, Semberg was able to withstand Yıldırım’s pressure and scored a 27:22 victory to snatch the bronze medal as time ran out.

Krivishkiy and Semberg’s family jumped for joy as Semberg herself leaped into the stands in Tokyo to celebrate with Israel’s first ever Olympic medalist, Yael Arad who won a Silver at the 1992 Barcelona Games.

Tears of joy were shed by both Avishag and Nimrod despite being thousands of miles apart as they celebrated. Physically they may have been in different countries, spiritually they were together as one.

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