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'A source of inspiration for many girls and boys in Israel'

Bennett, Herzog cheer taekwondo medalist Semberg: ‘You brought national pride’

PM, president congratulate Olympic bronze winner on Israel’s first medal at Tokyo Olympics, and country’s first in the sport; she says she hopes to get gold next time

Israel's Abishag Semberg celebrates wining the taekwondo women's -49kg bronze medal A bout during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the Makuhari Messe Hall in Tokyo, on July 24, 2021. (Javier Soriano/AFP)
Israel's Abishag Semberg celebrates wining the taekwondo women's -49kg bronze medal A bout during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the Makuhari Messe Hall in Tokyo, on July 24, 2021. (Javier Soriano/AFP)

Both Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and President Isaac Herzog sent their congratulations on Saturday to taekwondo athlete Avishag Semberg, 19, for winning the bronze medal in the women’s -49kg category, and netting Israel its first medal at the Tokyo Games on the first full day of the Olympics.

The win was Israel’s 10th medal in Olympic history, and its first-ever in the field of taekwondo.

Bennett praised Semberg in a tweet, writing that she “provides a wonderful example of determination and willpower.”

“You have brought us all national pride! Congratulations Avishag, congratulations Israel!” Bennett wrote.

Herzog placed a call on Saturday to Semberg, currently in Tokyo, to tell her it was an honor to speak with a champion.

“It’s an honor. You’ve brought such pride to the State of Israel,” Herzog told her during the call, a part of which aired on Channel 13 news on Saturday evening.

“You’ve made history! You made it big. Well done for winning this historic medal in taekwondo,” he said, according to a transcript sent by his office. “You worked hard all the way and brought immense pride to the State of Israel. A big hug from all of us.”

Turkey’s Rukiye Yildirim (Blue) and Israel’s Abishag Semberg (Red) compete in the taekwondo women’s -49kg bronze medal A bout during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the Makuhari Messe Hall in Tokyo, on July 24, 2021. (Javier Soriano/AFP)

“You are a source of inspiration for many girls and boys in Israel who will look at you and see that with hard work, you can turn a dream into reality,” the president added.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid also joined in, tweeting, “A medal for Avishag! Honor for Israel.”

Isaac Herzog (L) and Naftali Bennett at the Knesset in June 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Semberg defeated Turkey’s Rukiye Yıldırım 27-22 for the bronze on Saturday. The Israeli athlete, the country’s third female Olympic medalist, scored an early lead in the first of three two-minute rounds, and managed to maintain it during the second one. However, Yildirim overtook her during the third round, leading to a tense finale in which the Israeli eventually managed to take the lead once again in the final 25 seconds.

Earlier in the day, Semberg already made history by winning Israel its first-ever Olympic taekwondo fight, defeating Puerto Rico’s Victoria Stambaugh 22-2 in the women’s -49 kg event.

In the subsequent round of 16 though, Semberg was soundly defeated 29-5 by Thailand’s Panipak Wongpattanakit, who went on to win the gold.

Israel’s Abishag Semberg (blue) and Puerto Rico’s Victoria Stambaugh (red) compete in the taekwondo women’s -49kg elimination round bout during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the Makuhari Messe Hall in Tokyo, on July 24, 2021. (Javier Soriano/AFP)

Semberg then won her consolation bracket fight against Vietnam’s Truong Thi Kim Tuyen 22-1, to put her in position for the fight for the bronze.

After her win, Semberg ran to the stands to embrace Yael Arad, a former judoka who was the first Israeli to ever win an Olympic medal, with a second-place finish at the 1992 Barcelona Games.

Of her last-minute rally to take the lead in the match, Semberg said, “After the turnaround, I said to myself, ‘I want this medal more than she does,’ and I did it… I have an Olympic medal at 19, it’s a dream come true.”

“I still haven’t fully grasped what I did here — [the fact I won] an Olympic medal is not yet absorbed in my head. I thank the many people who played a part in my journey,” she said in comments aired across Israeli TV channels.

Israel’s Avishag Semberg celebrates with her bronze medal on the podium after winning the taekwondo women’s -49kg bronze medal A bout during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the Makuhari Messe Hall in Tokyo, on July 24, 2021. (Javier Soriano/AFP)

Moments after her victory, Semberg said she couldn’t fully process it. “I can’t believe that I am an Olympic medalist. I’m waiting to talk to my mom, my dad, and my boyfriend. There are a lot of people I have to thank,” she said during a press conference.

“It’s crazy, it’s an extraordinary feeling. My head is in the clouds. I’m very pleased with my performance today,” she added.

“I know I can give more of myself and I think I can bring [the] gold [medal] next time,” said Semberg.

Semberg’s mother, Nili, told Israeli sports channel Sports 1 that she was proud of her daughter and admired her greatly. “She is an inspiration to me… a stunning and amazing girl. I am always, always proud of her, she is a model for me – of determination, of achievement, of everything.”

“I’m learning from her what it’s like to dream big, what it’s like to be brave,” added Nili Semberg.

Semberg had quite a year. She won the 2020 European Championships held in April 2021, but also contracted COVID-19 and spent several weeks at home recovering.

She said she now has her sights set on the Paris Olympics in 2024.

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