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Israeli teen rhythmic gymnasts visit L.A.

by Jared Sichel

February 5, 2014 | 2:49 pm

From left: Tanya Berenson director of the Los Angeles School of Gymnastics and Alla Svirsky (third from left) a coach at the school, with young Israeli gymnasts Sheli Sapir and Stefani Ivanzov.

From left: Tanya Berenson director of the Los Angeles School of Gymnastics and Alla Svirsky (third from left) a coach at the school, with young Israeli gymnasts Sheli Sapir and Stefani Ivanzov.

Standing straight, arms behind their backs, military style, the two young rhythmic gymnasts answered questions monotonously, with as few words as possible — disciplined, like the routines they were about to perform.

In Los Angeles for the annual L.A. Lights Rhythmic Gymnastics Tournament of Champions last month, 14-year-olds Sheli Sapir, Stefani Ivanzov and their coach, Svetlana Jhugarev, were representing the Israeli Rhythmic Gymnastics Federation-Maccabi Club.

Looking like innocent teenagers, yet acting like stern, well-trained athletes, the two Israeli performers, both dressed in their gymnast outfits, took a break from their warm-ups to answer some questions.

But neither had much to say, only that they have both been at this since they were about 4 years old. Instead, they did their showing off on the floor in competition during the Jan. 23-26 tournament hosted in Culver City by the Los Angeles School of Gymnastics (LASG).

In one pose that looked particularly uncomfortable — for people of normal flexibility, at least — Sapir stood on one foot and leaned forward, touching both hands to the ground while her other leg extended up in the air at a 180-degree angle to the first. Meanwhile, she somehow managed to cradle a golden ball between her airborne foot and ankle.

Unlike artistic gymnastics — which emphasizes strength, balance and agility using apparatuses such as the vault and balance beam — rhythmic gymnastics primarily involves grace, dance and flexibility, and is always choreographed with music. Competitors use clubs, hoops, balls, ribbons and ropes.

During the event with clubs, competitors would toss the clubs in the air, perform a few graceful spins and jumps, then attempt to land cleanly while catching the falling clubs. Drops were common, but Sapir and Ivanzov snatched everything that went airborne.

Held at the Veterans Memorial Auditorium, the tournament attracted top-notch talent from around the world, particularly Eastern Europe. Russian filled the air on Jan. 26, as many of the athletes and coaches were from Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. 

Headed by Alla Svirsky, LASG’s executive director, and her daughter, its general manager, L.A. Lights is just the most recent example of the mother-daughter duo’s lifelong push to spread rhythmic gymnastics.

In 1984, when the sport first became an official Olympic competition, Svirsky led the American squad in the Los Angeles games. In July 2013, Berenson was the coach for the American team at the Maccabiah Games in Israel, the first time the United States competed in rhythmic gymnastics there in more than a decade. Israel sending its own delegation to Los Angeles was, Berenson said, their way of saying thank you.

“They came in good will from the U.S. attending their event,” she said.

Performing separately, Sapir and Ivanzov each had three routines — one with a golden ball, the second with clubs and the third with a ribbon. Overall, Sapir placed eighth out of 14 in the Level 10 junior group, and Ivanzov placed ninth out of 14. The girls’ high score came when Sapir placed fourth out of 11 in the hoop competition.

Asked whether she thinks the two young Israelis have a chance at eventually competing on an even bigger stage in the years to come, Berenson said, “I know that her [Jhugarev’s] athletes are going to have a very good chance at World and Olympic Games.”

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