"I still can't comprehend it," a tired Linoy Ashram, a newly minted Olympic champion, says with a smile, shortly after she landed in Israel on Wednesday. Her hometown of Rishon Letzion welcomed her with posters bearing her image, as well as those of Olympic medalists Peter Paltchik and Artem Dolgopyat, all across the city.

A giant "Welcome Home" was hung on the modest building where the Ashram family resides. The apartment itself is full of flowers, chocolates and balloons reflecting the pride in the first Israeli woman to win a gold medal in rhythmic gymnastics.

"I'm still living the dream," she says. "Only now, slowly, I'm beginning to understand the magnitude of the achievement.

"I came to Tokyo with the goal of giving my all and experiencing the moment and the feeling of being there, at the Olympics. I knew that, if I did well, I could return with some kind of medal, but I didn't imagine what color it would be. The idea that it would be gold didn't enter my head."

Q: What did you feel after the tense moments of waiting for the score of your rival, Russian Dina Averina?

"I cried. I cried with Ayelet [Ashram's trainer] and I cried when I was joined in an interview by my mom and dad, and I cried in my first conversation with my boyfriend. He told me how proud he was of me and how much he loved me. They were amazing moments. I had a big and long hug with Ayelet. How far we had come up to this moment, how much she had held me.

"We were so happy and we are still so happy. At the medal ceremony, when I saw my friends in the Israeli delegation who had stayed, when I heard them applauding me and singing the anthem, it was one of the most moving moments in my life.

"That night, after they awarded the medal, I didn't sleep at all. Maybe I dozed for 40 minutes. The medal was beside me all the time."

Q: Do you believe in God?

"Yes. I went with Ayelet to the Western Wall before we flew to Japan and I placed a note there. I light the candles on Shabbat, fast on Yom Kippur, and I recited 'Shema Yisrael' to myself before every routine."

Two weeks ago, when she had only just landed in Japan, things were not so rosy for Ashram. On the second night for her and the team which accompanied her, while they were still in the training camp in the city of Ichihara, her coach Ayelet Zussman felt that something wasn't right.

"When we arrived in Japan, a week before the competition, we had white nights," Zussman recalls. "That night, I couldn't sleep because of the jet lag, and I felt that Linoy was also awake. 4:30 a.m., I decided to check when she had last been seen on WhatsApp, and I saw that she was online. Twenty minutes later, I saw that she was again on WhatsApp, and I realized that she wasn't able to sleep.

"We went up on the roof of the hotel. The city was spread out before us, the morning was beginning, and we had a heart-to-heart talk, where she told me about all the pressure she was under."

Q: What did she tell you?

"That she was stressed, that she was afraid to disappoint the country and me as well. I calmed her down and I said, 'You don't disappoint me. The path that you took, that we took, up to now, that is what's important. Here you just have to enjoy yourself.' I told her how much I had faith in her, in her ability, in who she is.

"We remembered her successes over the last few years, and from that night I saw that things were released in her. Everything passed. Her functioning improved, she slept well at night, I felt that she calmed down."

The Olympic champion smiles. "Ayelet senses me every moment, she maybe understands me even more than my mother. Without saying a word, she knows that I'm not falling asleep, she knows what to say to me. She is so considerate towards me.

"On other nights as well, she sits with me right up until I fall asleep. She's really special. Overall, I don't know how I would have got through the corona period without her. I'm sure that it would have been far more difficult to get through this year, the postponement of the Olympics, which basically meant doing another year of training, and competitions, until the pinnacle."

After four days in Ichihara, they arrived at a four-bedroom flat in the Olympic Village in Tokyo. Four women stayed there: Ashram, the brilliant Nicole Zilkman, who also reached the finals, Zussman, and Ela Samofalov, Zilkman's coach. A united team, loving and supportive of one another. Each of them had their own room. They were together when they wanted, and when they needed to, they retired to their bedroom, to be alone for a little.

When they arrived in Tokyo, Zussman enlisted more mental support for Ashram, this time from Ofek (21), her boyfriend.

"I tried, as much as I could, to isolate Linoy from all the noise surrounding her," she explains. "But I knew how important her mobile phone was to her, through which she received support from her amazing family, from her friends and from her boyfriend, who is really salt of the earth.

"I asked him to set an alarm, so that he would call Linoy every night at 1:30 a.m. Israeli time. In Tokyo it was 7:30 in the morning, so that's how she started the day, with a 'good morning' from her boyfriend and a big, sweet smile. I knew how much good it would do for Linoy, and he flowed with me and was brilliant."

As the qualifiers began, Ashram had an error in her first routine with the hoop.

"Ayelet knew exactly what to say to me so that I would focus again," Ashram, who finished in 15th place, climbing to third place by the end of the qualifiers, recalls. She told me 'Linoy, calm down, the goal here is only to reach the final, only the top 10. You have another three routines to get through, to do everything despite what happened.' Afterwards I felt completely focused and full of purpose, and I didn't think of anything apart from the routines.

"I continued only to do my best, with the goal of succeeding in reaching the final."

Eyes on the prize

The morning of the final, Ashram and Zussman woke in good spirits.

"We put on fun and rhythmic songs, we ate breakfast, including pineapple, which was the tastiest thing that I ate there, danced and were happy," Ashram says. "We were together all the time, Nicole, her trainer Ela, Ayelet and myself. I really reached the final in the best spirits possible."

Q: Did you go into the final with the goal of winning the gold?

"No. And I didn't feel like I was on my way to the gold medal. I knew that there was the Russian and the Belarussian, and that every time I was first in the rankings, I knew that it wasn't over.

"During the routines, I understood that I would get a medal, and after the ribbon routine I knew that I was in first place, and then it was insanely stressful. The waiting was one of the tensest moments in my life, and they played music with drumming in the background. But I knew that no matter what, I had an Olympic medal. I was third in many competitions, after the Russians, so the very act of winning a medal was an achievement and I only waited to see the result.

"The tension was enormous. Nicole whispered in my ear: 'We fulfilled a dream, it doesn't matter what the score is, you've won a medal and you've done your best.' We are always like that, we lift each other up, and over the course of the competition, we were a united foursome, together with the coaches. There was never such a strong connection, both between coaches and between gymnasts. We help one another, and Ela, Nicole's coach, also lifted me after the hoop routine in the qualifiers."

Q: What did you think after you dropped the ribbon in the last routine? Did the thought "I ruined it all" go through your head?

"I was pessimistic. I felt that perhaps it would harm my final score and drop me down a bit in the rankings, but I continued because that's who I'm, I give my maximum even when something doesn't go right and there's a hitch. On some level, it even resets me, and that's also what happened with the ribbon. Within a second, I succeeded in returning to myself. After the routine Ayelet said to me that my difficulty level was really high and that the mistake shouldn't harm my score too much, and she was right."

Ashram celebrates with her coach Ayelet Zussman after winning the individual all-around final in the Tokyo Games, Aug. 7, 2021. (AFP/Lionel Bonaventure/File)

Q: Your main rivals, Russian twins Dina and Arina Averina, didn't take the loss so well. Did you speak with them?

"At the end of the final I approached Dina, who finished second, and I wanted to congratulate her. But she was crying and was in no state to talk. Since then, there wasn't an opportunity to talk or to get in touch at all. At competitions we say hello and wish good luck to one another, and after the competition we congratulate one another at the end."

Q: What do you think about the criticism from Russia, the claims about the judges and the appeal?

"I don't deal with what others are saying. I made my achievement, and it's mine together with Ayelet and the professional team. Whoever wants, they can say what they want, I'm happy with what I achieved.

"In the World Championships in 2018, Dina's ribbon fell, and she still beat me. We didn't say a word. That's the judging, and that's the Olympics. That is, the fairest judging there is. I also heard already that Dina said it's not my fault."

Q: Did you get ugly responses? Antisemitism? Any types of accusations?

"I don't know why it has to reach the level of antisemitism. There are people who think one way and there are people who think another way."

Q: Have you seen the Russian Tiktok challenge which tries to ridicule you?

"I haven't seen it. It's happening because they're not used to it. Their gymnasts always win, and suddenly it happened. Maybe they thought it was in their pocket."

Q: Before your competition, did you watch Artem Dolgopyat's gold?

"Of course. We sat together in training watched Artem's final, and when he won we jumped up and went wild. We called to congratulate him straight afterwards, it was so great to know that someone had succeeded in winning the gold. We knew that he was capable, he just needed to perform his best routine."

Q: Did his medal encourage you?

Ashram with her parents Oren and Hedva (Alan Shiver)

"Yes. The thought went through my head that I wanted it too, that I already wanted to compete. Artem had competed, he had already experienced it, and we still hadn't been in the Olympic Village, because we only got there on August 2nd."

Linoy already came to Tokyo with a wardrobe full of medals: silver and bronze medals from the 2018 and 2019 World Championships, a gold, silver and bronze medal from the 2020 European Championships, and bronze medals from the 2017 European Championships – to name a few.

"My mother believed in me my whole life," she says, "When she brought me to the gym for the first time, she said to my trainer, 'You'll see, this will be the Israeli Nadia Comaneci.' The coach thought that my mother didn't understand, because Comaneci was an instrumental gymnast, but my mother knew that. She only said it because of her achievements.

A longer version of this interview originally appeared on Israel HaYom.