As we head into the controversial super-spreader event known as the Tokyo Olympics, all eyes are on the Jewish athletes in the various gymnastics disciplines. OK fine, maybe not, but all eyes should be, because there are many talented Jewish gymnasts from different countries who’ve fulfilled their lifelong dreams and will now be chalking up in Tokyo to represent the chosen people.
While we won’t be getting national treasure Aly Raisman’s iconic “Hava Nagila” floor routine, we will be getting a delegation of Jewish artistic, rhythmic and trampoline gymnasts whose sheer physical powers range from unhuman-like contortion, to vaulting alongside competitors like Simone Biles, to proving that a trampoline isn’t just that thing your mom wouldn’t let you jump on at summer camp. Here’s a rundown of the Jewish gymnasts to cheer on in Tokyo:
Russia (“Russian Olympic Committee”), artistic gymnastics
24-year-old Pisces from Vladivostok, Russia; first Olympics
Lilia Akhaimova just made her first Olympic team for artistic gymnastics at 24, and I would like all the sports commentators who drop in for gymnastics every four years to stop talking about how women gymnasts peak at 16. Akhaimova is a two-time World Championships silver medalist and 2018 European Champion with the Russian women’s team, and has qualified to multiple vault finals at high-level competitions. Because she competes two different vaults, Akhaimova will try to qualify to the Olympic vault final alongside Simone Biles and other powerhouse gymnasts.
Akhaimova is a native of Vladivostok, a city all the way on the Sea of Japan with a fascinating Jewish history. Vladivostok’s synagogue was finally returned to the community from the government in 2005. In 2012, her family moved to Saint Petersburg so she and her younger sister, Luba, could have better gymnastics training opportunities. When they’re not training, the Akhaimova sisters pose in ballgowns for Instagram photoshoots, as you do.
Akhaimova also has a prolific TikTok account, where she mostly posts videos of her lip-synching to hip-hop in various languages and showing off her leotards. The Russian women’s artistic gymnastics program has a lot of depth, and veterans are always at risk of being pushed out by the next generation, so it’s a huge accomplishment for Akhaimova to be a member of their Olympic team.
(At the time of this writing, the Russian team’s head coach has not yet determined whether Akhaimova will be a member of the main four-person team or represent the ROC as an individual athlete; she and another gymnast are still being evaluated before the decision is made. Artistic gymnastics teams this year include four athletes competing in the team competition and up to two individual competitors.)
Israel, rhythmic gymnastics
22-year-old Taurus from Rishon LeZion, Israel; first Olympics
Linoy Ashram is a decorated rhythmic gymnast who has a good chance of bringing an Olympic medal home to Israel. A native of Rishon LeZion, a city just south of Tel Aviv, Ashram is the 2020 European all-around champion and won the bronze medal in the all-around at the last World Championships in 2019. There are a variety of events in rhythmic gymnastics, all of which involve not only extreme physical feats and artistry, but also timing, air awareness and hand-eye coordination that still boggles my mind years after becoming a fan. Ashram is good at all of them, having picked up multiple silvers and bronzes in the Hoop, Clubs, Ribbon and Ball event finals at Worlds since 2017, as well as leading Israel to a team silver in 2019. She’s the first Israeli rhythmic gymnast to medal in the all-around at Worlds, and the 22-year-old will look to keep pace with gymnasts of veteran programs like Russia and other former Soviet states in Tokyo.
Ashram’s accolades have already been well-documented by Alma, including this photo of her that’s become popular on Twitter because she looks headless (rhythmic gymnasts — they’re just like us, if you also had no bones!) and her techno “Hava Nagila” routine (which is probably not an homage to Raisman but I’d like to think so).
One of my favorite things about Ashram is how she responded to a personal attack this year with grace and dignity. This spring, extremists vandalized a billboard featuring Ashram and (male) Israeli swimmer Yakov Toumarkin, blacking out her face, as some believe showing a woman’s face in photos is immodest — a phenomenon of erasure that religious women have written about extensively. Ashram responded by posing with her new billboard, one that declares that women athletes bring the country pride. Go, Linoy Ashram, go!!
Israel, artistic gymnastics
24-year-old Gemini from Dnipro, Ukraine; first Olympics
Artem Dolgopyat is a men’s artistic gymnast and a two-time World Championships silver medalist on floor exercise. Born in Dnipro, Ukraine, Dolgopyat moved with his family to Israel when he was 12 and began training at Maccabi Tel Aviv, an acclaimed sports club that has produced multiple Olympians. Dolgopyat will make his Olympic debut in Tokyo and is favored to qualify for the floor exercise final, where he will challenge other top competitors from Russia, China, Spain, the Philippines and more for a medal. He also won the bronze medal on vault at the 2020 European Championships (though I’d be remiss not to mention that many countries skipped those champs because of COVID). Floor and vault are two events you won’t want to miss in Tokyo: Athletes are known to upgrade their routines between qualifications and finals to maximize their medal chances, and the difference between silver and gold often comes down to who takes a couple steps on a landing. Plus, men’s vaults finals are always objectively terrifying and thrilling.
Dolgopyat’s social media presence mostly consists of training videos, specifically shirtless videos of him training pommel horse. Here’s a photo of him with Ukrainian Olympic gymnastics champion Oleg Verniaiev.
Israel, artistic gymnastics
17-year-old Virgo from New York City, US; first Olympics
Raz is a teenage artistic gymnast who didn’t expect to be going to the Tokyo Olympics. When this Olympic cycle began (called “quads” because the Games are every four years when there’s not a pandemic), Raz was 13 and didn’t expect that Israel would qualify more than one athlete from women’s artistic gymnastics (WAG) to the games. However, when teammate Ofir Netzer tore her ACL, Raz stepped up to the plate to ensure that Israel would send at least one WAG representative. She sealed the deal at the 2019 World Championships in Germany and then, facing a postponed Olympics, won a bronze medal in the floor final at the 2020 European Championships. The high school student says she hopes to continue competing through the 2024 Olympics.
Raz was born in Manhattan to Israeli parents in 2003, and her family moved to Ramat HaSharon when she was only 3 months old. As a minor, Raz’s social media is private, but she spoke to International Gymnast Magazine this year about her confidence in the younger generation of up-and-coming Israeli elite gymnasts.
Israel, artistic gymnastics
34-year-old Aries from Tashkent, Uzbek SSR; competed at 2008, 2012, 2016 Games
Alexander Shatilov has been competing as an elite artistic gymnast since 2006, which is referred to in the gymnastics community as a long ass time. He became the first Israeli gymnast to qualify to a World Championships final in 2006, finishing seventh in the floor final, and has gone on to compete in three consecutive Olympics.
Born in Tashkent in Soviet Uzbekistan, his family emigrated to Israel when he was 15, and though I have not confirmed that he’s the tallest gymnast in the world, at 6 feet tall, I’m comfortable putting it out there. He holds two World Championships bronze medals on floor exercise and has won medals of various colors on floor at the European Championships from 2009 to 2017. He’s also a mentor to Dolgopyat, who beat him for the Israeli national floor title for the first time in 2015. It’s possible that the Tokyo Games will be Shatilov’s last competition, as he transitions to focus on mentoring other younger gymnasts.
When Shatilov isn’t training, he’s raising his two sons, Rome and Guy, with his wife, Alya. Though the boys are a little young for gymnastics, they were helpful training partners during the COVID lockdowns. And while his surfing skills don’t quite rival Anat Lelior’s, he did teach his dog Ninja how to surf a few years ago.
29-year-old Aries from Toronto, Canada; Olympic alternate in 2012
Samantha Smith is a Vancouver-based trampoline gymnast who is making her first competitive appearance at the Olympics after serving as an alternate at the 2012 Games in London. Born in Toronto, the 29-year-old has competed in individual, synchronized and team trampoline events, winning a bronze medal in the women’s team competition at the 2019 World Championships in Tokyo — so maybe a return to Japan will bring good luck! She’s also returning with her Worlds teammate Rosie MacLennan, who is the two-time defending Olympic champion in women’s trampoline. If you’ve never seen how cool a synchronized trampoline routine is, here’s Smith’s bronze medal-winning performancefrom 2019 Worlds alongside Rachel Tam. (Smith won’t compete in synchro in Tokyo as the Olympics only host a men’s and women’s individual competition.)
Smith’s Instagram could be an advertisement for Canadian nature tourism, and she also provides safety tips so you can take advantage of the Great White North’s scenery carefully. She makes me want to plan a trip to the vistas of British Columbia, and she also posts some cute holiday photos, like this one from her family’s Hanukkah celebration in 2019.
Israel, rhythmic gymnastics
20-year-old Aquarius from Kfar Sava, Israel; first Olympics
Nicol Zelikman can bring her leg up behind her and reach it in front of her face. Yes, every rhythmic gymnast can do that, but if you’ve read this far and still don’t think gymnastics is awe-inspiring, I don’t know what to tell you. A 2019 World Championships silver medalist, Zelikman is an individual rhythmic gymnast like Ashram, meaning that she will compete in the individual all-around competition but not in the group final in Tokyo. A native of Kfar Sava in central Israel, one of Zelikman’s coaches is her mother, Elena, a former rhythmic gymnast herself.
Zelikman is also a ballerina and posts many pointe shoe-clad photos on her Instagram. She has a twin brother, Shon, who is not a rhythmic gymnast and is much taller than her. (Fun fact: There are going to be twins competing in gymnastics at the Olympics from Great Britain, Russia, the Netherlands and Italy this year.) One thing Zelikman has treasured in her career is the opportunity to compete in Baku, Azerbaijan, which has hosted multiple competitions, including the 2019 European Championships. Both of Zelikman’s parents were born and raised in Baku, and got to travel with her and show her the house where they used to live.
All of these gymnasts perform skills that defy physics and push their bodies to extremes, and the women usually do it with a ton of glitter on their faces as well. They’ve broken boundaries and records and poured literal blood, sweat, and tears into one of the hardest sports in the world. I couldn’t be more excited to watch all these gymnasts go for gold at the Games and leave it all on the floor.