Formidable, Fierce and Feminine

The Aly Raisman Story

 

By Dina Diamond

A little girls dream

 

As an eight year old, Alexandra (Aly) Raisman dreamed of becoming an Olympic gymnast. Gazing in awe at the television in her parents’ living room, she repeatedly watched a recording of the 1996 US women’s gymnastics team entering the Olympic Stadium and competing. The excitement of the crowd in the stadium was palpable. She decided that one day, she too would be part of that winning team. 

 

Aly Raisman is one of this decade’s most accomplished athletes. She ranks amongst the best Jewish athletes of all time, alongside Olympic legends such as Mark Spitz and Dara Torres. She’s the darling of the American public. Raisman is a proud Jewess. She is tenacious, bold, brave and outspoken where it matters. She is feminine, beautiful and, she is a winner. This is her story.

Aly Rising

 

Aly Rose Raisman, the eldest of four children, was born on 25 May, 1994, in Needham, Massachusetts, to Jewish parents, Lynn (née Faber), a former high school gymnast, and Rick Raisman. She began gymnastics when she was only two years old. 

If initial signs were to be any indication, you would probably not have bet on little Aly making it to the top. She was not naturally the best in her gymnastic class. At school she was often a target for ridicule due to her gymnast’s physique and she wore outsize outfits so as not to stand out. Raisman suffered from many injuries and endured much physical pain throughout her career.

Even at the early age of 13, her intense back pain prevented her from doing certain exercises. But, always afraid that these injuries might cause her to lose out on training, or a shot at a competition team, she often hid these injuries and trained through them.

 

Raisman would however rise above adversity and from difficulty, she would produce excellence. Through her unwavering determination, hard work, gruelling hours of practice, discipline and self-sacrifice Aly Raisman’s dream would come true, not just once, but twice. She became a member and captain of two US Olympic women’s gymnastics teams - in 2012 (for the team nicknamed the Fierce Five), that competed in London, and for the 2016 team (known as the Final Five) that competed in Rio de Janeiro. Both teams won gold in their respective competitions.

2012 Olympics

 

At the London Olympics, Raisman took gold in the team competition as well as in the individual all-round competition for her ‘floor’ routine. She also won the bronze medal on the balance beam, making her the most decorated American gymnast at the Games. For the individual all-round competition she narrowly missed another medal when she tied with Aliya Mustafina of Russia for bronze. Owing to how the scores are calculated, she lost the tie-breaker and placed fourth. 

 

 

Hava Nagila

 

Raisman’s floor routine at the 2012 Olympics was a stand-out performance. Ecstatically she said afterwards, “That was the best floor performance I've ever done, and to do it for the Olympics is like a dream.” The routine was choreographed to the tune of Hava Nagila and Raisman dedicated her medal to the 11 Israeli Olympians who were killed by terrorists at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich. 

 

In an interview with Steven A. Rosenberg of the Jewish Journal (JJ), Raisman explained: “I chose ‘Hava Nagila’ because it is a song loved all over the world. I wanted a song that people could relate to and when I was performing, I wanted people to feel like they were a part of the performance! There is an excitement in an arena when the crowd claps to the music.”

 

A woman whose mother was a holocaust survivor wrote a letter to Raisman’s rabbi in which it stated, that when her mother had watched Raisman perform to ‘Hava Nagila’, she she said to her: “I never thought in my lifetime I’d see a Jew at the Olympics dancing to ‘Hava Nagila’ in front of the Russians, Germans, and people of all nations, and it was no big deal, everyone is okay with it. More than that, everyone says she is doing great.” 

In her autobiography Fierce, Raisman says, “It became clear to me that when I competed, I was representing not only my country, but also the Jewish community. It gave me an even greater appreciation of the Olympics, a place where the whole world and people of all nationalities come together to support one another.” 

2016 & Gold

 

At the Rio Olympics in 2016 the US women’s gymnastics team was dubbed The Final Five, as it was the last time five gymnasts would compete on an Olympic team. From 2020 there would only be four gymnasts. Raisman, competing at age 22, won a gold medal in the team event, which made her and teammate Gabby Douglas, the only Americans with back-to-back team gold medals, having both been part of the 2012 team’s success. In the individual all-around competition, Raisman won a silver medal for yet another magnificent performance in her floor routine. 

Celebrity status

 

After both Games, the winning US women’s gymnasts achieved celebrity status. They were exposed to other world class athletes such as Usain Bolt and Novak Djokovic. They received instant recognition and established an adoring fan base. They were invited to the White House to meet with President Barack Obama, were called directly by celebrities such as Justin Bieber and got to hang out with the likes of Katy Perry, Taylor Swift and Rihanna, all who raved to them about their performances. They were invited to do photoshoots and present awards at various award ceremonies such as the VMAs (Video Music Awards) and were interviewed by multiple print publications, radio and television stations. 

An arduous journey

 

The moment of acclaim as a world champion seems picture perfect. The fanfare, endorsement deals and surrounding glamour, all look fantastic. What rarely surfaces is the story of the arduous journey endured to get there. Raisman endured this journey and paid a high price in terms of her physical, mental and social well-being.

 

The process

 

As a young child, Raisman trained at Exxcel Gymnastics, near to her home. She moved to  Brestyan's American Gymnastics Club to be coached under Romanian coaches Mihai and Silvia Brestyan, alongside another Olympic medalist, Alicia Sacramone. She trained for four hours every weeknight from 5pm to 9pm and three hours on Saturday mornings. She had to learn to balance schoolwork with physically demanding gymnastic workouts, which didn’t leave much time for a social life. She also had to forego family vacations as this would mean missing too much training. 

 

Aly’s family made great sacrifices to support her ambition. Her mother, Lynne, was the one who stayed with her and fetched and took her wherever she needed to go, while her father looked after her three siblings. Aly spent a lot of time travelling to competitions both within the States and internationally, which often meant suffering from jetlag. Immediately after landing, Aly and her teammates would be expected to go straight to the gymnastics arena, to practice. It was relentless and gruelling, but such is the making of a champion.

 

Karolyi & TOPs

 

While at Exxcel, before moving to Brestyan’s, Raisman focused on getting into the Talent Opportunity Program (TOPs) - a vital step in getting to the Olympics. TOPs was a special training programme run by leading coach and US national team co-ordinator, Martha Karolyi. Martha and her husband Bela coached Olympic gymnasts in Romania before coming to the United States. They bought a ranch in Texas and opened a gym where US national teams often went to train. Impressing Martha was vital for a chance at Olympic qualification. In order to get into TOPs, gymnasts had to go through special testing for strength and flexibility at a centre in New York. Only gymnasts with the best TOPs test scores from every region of the country were invited to the National Team Training Centre for a further round of testing. 

 

Raisman’s determination paid off and she was selected for the TOPs B Team to train at the Karolyi Ranch. This served to motivate her even further. Through natural progression and hard work, Raisman qualified as Elite. Being Elite meant that she was eligible to compete in certain competitions which allowed her to vie for a spot on the national team, which would train regularly at the ranch. This further opened doors to her as she was able to take part in international events such as the World Championships.

 

Martha, full of praises, had this to say about Raisman. "She is just so solid. She goes out there and doesn't act like she's bothered by anything. She knows she's trained, she knows she's ready, and she doesn't put any extra pressure on herself. I really love to have this kind of gymnast.”

 

Road to the Olympics

 

In 2011, at the World Artistic Gymnastics Championships in Tokyo, Raisman became famous for her first tumbling pass, a highly technical artistic manoeuvre. That year, she decided to become a professional athlete, gave up her NCAA eligibility and a scholarship to the University of Florida, and signed on with the Octagon sports management firm. 

 

Impressive results at competitions such as the American Cup, the City of Jesolo Trophy, the U.S. Classic in Chicago and the National Championships in St. Louis, meant Raisman was in contention for an Olympic spot. Then came the big moment, the Olympic Trials in San Jose, California. Raisman placed 1st on beam and floor and was selected for the 2012 Summer Olympics gymnastics team. She was the oldest at 18 and named captain of the team. 

 

Completing the circle

 

Following the 2012 Olympics, Raisman decided to take a break from the pressure of competitive gymnastics and went on the Kellogg's Tour of Gymnastics Champions. She was also given the honour of igniting the 2013 Maccabiah Games flame in Israel, which was a special moment for her. “I was honoured to be invited to be a part of the Maccabiah Games, and it was very special to be able to light the torch. The opportunity to visit Israel and to share that with my family was very special to us all.” (JJ interview 2018)

 

Raisman decided to return to her professional gymnastics career, prompted in part by a restless inner voice - telling, of the psyche of a champion - echoing her to succeed where she had fallen short; the individual medal placement that had narrowly alluded her at the 2012 Olympics still stuck in her mind and Raisman was determined to get another shot at it.  

 

Mihai Brestyan, her longtime coach, made Raisman do a year of conditioning before he allowed her to return to the apparatus. In 2014, she made an official return to gymnastics at the October national training camp, her first since the Olympics. After the November training camp, she was named again to the US National Team. She had to work even harder to prove her worth the second time round. She was beset by anxiety from her own self-doubt and the pressure to perform. Even though she was a previous Olympic champion, it did not guarantee her a spot on the 2016 Olympic team. It had to be earned.

 

2016 started well with Raisman securing a string of good results in important competitions. With July came the Olympic trials and Raisman was both delighted and relieved when she was named for the 2016 US Olympic team and thrilled to again be selected as captain.

 

The 2016 Rio Olympics were a rip-roaring success for the ‘Final Five’ as the US team, again captured gold, in the team event. Raisman took silver for the floor and this time, she stood on the podium with the silver medal for the individual all-around competition, which had eluded her in London four years prior. The circle was now complete.

Darker Days

The nightmare that engulfed the US Olympic Women’s Gymnastic fraternity in 2016 was devastating. The demon that had been hiding in the closet, was finally out. Larry Nassar, a highly respected sports doctor, who for decades had treated US female gymnasts, was exposed to have been sexually abusing hundreds of young girls over a period of many years, while they were in his care.

 

It was only at one of the Karolyi camps, when a discussion about Nassar’s behaviour by some of the girls was overheard by one of the coaches, that Nassar was reported to the correct authorities. 

A new chapter in courage

 

In November 2017, Raisman officially came forward as one of Nassar’s many victims. In January 2018, she confronted Larry Nassar at the court sentencing. For a 24 year old to face her abuser while being broadcast live was surely scary, daunting and deeply uncomfortable, but Raisman summoned her courage and, together with several other victims, read impact statements, some directed at Nassar, before the court. Judge Rosemarie Aquilina sentenced a pathetic-looking Nassar to 40 years to 175 years in prison, on criminal sexual conduct charges.

A new chapter in courage

 

In November 2017, Raisman officially came forward as one of Nassar’s many victims. In January 2018, she confronted Larry Nassar at the court sentencing. For a 24 year old to face her abuser while being broadcast live was surely scary, daunting and deeply uncomfortable, but Raisman summoned her courage and, together with several other victims, read impact statements, some directed at Nassar, before the court. Judge Rosemarie Aquilina sentenced a pathetic-looking Nassar to 40 years to 175 years in prison, on criminal sexual conduct charges.

 

Raisman didn’t stop there, however. She took the fight to the bodies that should have prevented what happened to her and to so many others, in order to establish accountability and to ensure that it will never happen again. In February 2018, Raisman filed a lawsuit against USA Gymnastics and the United States Olympic Committee (USOC), claiming that both organisations “knew, or should have known" about the ongoing abuse. 

 

Championing the fight against sexual abuse, particularly for minors, is very much a part of a new chapter Raisman is writing into her powerful legacy: “It is important to keep the conversation going so predators are stopped and children feel comfortable speaking up if something isn’t right. The change in our society has to start with each and every single one of us.” 

 

Raisman, together with a group of 150 victims of Larry Nassar’s abuse, was awarded the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at an event in July 2018. At the event Raisman determinedly stated: “To all the survivors out there - don’t let anyone rewrite your story. Your truth does matter. You matter. And you are not alone.”

 

The light 

With a career total of six Olympic medals, Raisman is the second most decorated American Olympic gymnast behind Shannon Miller. Clearly though, Raisman has impacted on so much more than just the competition floor. She continues to use her platform to give back to society, to encourage the youth and to promote self-belief and self-love. She speaks at many schools and events, striving to empower others to achieve. She joined UNICEF Kid Power as a brand ambassador and is involved with many charities. 

 

Aly Raisman inspires and motivates millions of people worldwide. Her ongoing story of triumph truly reinforces the reality that, with complete passion, focus and hard work, no dream is too big to realise. 

 

Article by Dina Diamond

 

Dina Diamond has a diverse background and skill set. She is a writer, mom, marketer, banker, emcee. She dabbles in radio, spends a lot of time on various committees and is passionate about giving back. Motto: ‘Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass, it’s about learning to dance in the rain’.

 

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