First in an occasional series profiling US Olympic hopefuls training for the Summer Games in London.
BURLINGTON—The YouTube clip shows her in the stands with her Brestyan’s clubmates at the 2008 US gymnastics championships at Agganis Arena, answering the Grant’s Tomb question posed by John Macready, the roving emcee and former Olympian.
Where will the Beijing Olympics be held?
“I kind of stuttered,’’ Alexandra Raisman remembered. “I got nervous.’’
Maybe Raisman would be in the Games one day, Macready suggested.
“I remember her saying, ‘Next year I’ll be down on the floor,’ ’’ her mother Lynn said.
Not only was her driven daughter on the floor in 2009, she qualified for the national team. In 2010, the Needham native made the world squad and came home with a silver medal. Last year, she won worlds gold as the de facto leader of a rookie bunch and vaulted into the front rank of contenders for the US team for this summer’s Games in London.
“It’s kind of unbelievable where she came from,’’ said her mother.
If the 17-year-old Raisman stays healthy—no guarantee in a mid-air sport with no safety nets—she has an excellent chance to earn a place on the most difficult women’s Olympic team to make in domestic history.
Besides her gold-medal teammates—all-round champion Jordyn Wieber, McKayla Maroney, Sabrina Vega, Gabrielle Douglas, and Beijing medalist and clubmate Alicia Sacramone—all but one member of the 2008 team is back, most notably Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson, who finished 1-2 in the all-around.
The talent pool is so deep that the squad named to last summer’s Pan American Games, where USA Gymnastics usually sends the junior varsity, included three former world champions in Johnson, Chellsie Memmel, and Bridget Sloan.
“It’s going to be a really big challenge because there are so many newcomers and so many of the girls from the 2008 Olympics,’’ Raisman acknowledged. “It’s going to be a fight to get on that team, but whoever is on it, it’s going to be an amazing team.’’
Yet Raisman has the résumé to earn a place at Olympus, particularly with the team roster reduced from six to five. She competed in three of the four events (all but uneven bars) in the ’11 worlds team competition, finished fourth in the all-around and balance beam, and earned a bronze on the floor.
“I don’t like to have favorites, but I always want to differentiate between the girls who have the dedication,’’ said national team coordinator Martha Karolyi. “I see Aly as one of the important components of the Olympic team if everything continues to go in the same direction.’’
Unlike the last two Olympic teams, this one will be determined at the June trials in San Jose instead of at a subsequent Texas boot camp. So the shortened calendar means that everybody will have to be in top form a month before the Games.
“You need to be ready,’’ said Mihai Brestyan, the Romanian emigre who also coaches Sacramone, who is rehabbing from Achilles’ tendon surgery but expects to be in the chase. “Today the flag is up, you have to jump. You need to be ready at any time.’’
It was impractical for Raisman to juggle academics and gymnastics, which caused her to miss 50 days of school last year.
“Running to school, running to the gym, running back,’’ said Lynn. “A lot of running.’’
So Raisman is doing her senior year online at Needham High, getting much of her work done on weekends.
“I’m still going to go to the prom and graduation,’’ she said, “so I kind of get the best of both worlds.’’
Raisman spends at least seven hours in the gym four days a week—double sessions at 8:30 a.m. and 5 p.m.—plus three-hour morning workouts on Wednesday and Saturday.
“She knows she has the possibility to get a medal in the Olympic Games, but for everything you want to do, you need to make a sacrifice,’’ said Brestyan. “It’s one chance.’’
High school can be done by mouse pad, and college can wait. If Raisman makes it to London, she’ll be on tour for three months after the Games, which will delay her enrolling at a university.
“Definitely I want to go to college,’’ she said. “I don’t know where yet. I’ll take a year off and then I’ll figure out where I want to go. But I’m definitely going to go and be able to experience being a normal kid for once.’’
When Raisman does enroll, it will be only as a student. By signing with the Octagon sports management firm last autumn and turning professional, she passed up a gymnastics scholarship.
“It was a hard decision but I’ve always thought about it in the back of my mind,’’ said Raisman, who already has a deal with Ralph Lauren, which is creating the clothing for the American team. “I just wanted to try it and have no regrets because I thought if I didn’t try to go pro I’d always wonder.’’
Had Raisman remained an amateur, she likely would have gone to Florida, perennially a top-seven NCAA team.
“I know all the girls at Florida and they love it there so much,’’ she said. “But not a lot of people get the opportunity to be a professional gymnast and be able to have sponsors. I love fashion, so it’s cool to be sponsored by them.’’
Future looks busy
If Raisman wants to continue on to the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro, the academics-gymnastics balancing act will present itself again with more time-and-distance complications.
“You can’t sit in two chairs,’’ said Brestyan. “You have to choose one of them.’’
Sacramone tried to do both when she was at Brown and all but wore out her personal transmission shuttling between Providence and Burlington. As it is, Raisman spends two hours a day commuting between home and gym in her Land Rover. But instead of sitting in class, she is able to spend her weekdays in the gym upgrading her start values and polishing her execution to prepare for the competition schedule.
Raisman’s date book includes the American Cup in Madison Square Garden March 3, the Pacific Rim championships in Everett, Wash., two weeks later, the nationals in St. Louis in early June and the trials.
“It’s important to stay in the moment, but also it’s important for me to always keep the Olympics in the back of my mind because it’s so close now,’’ she said. “I can’t even believe it’s six months away.’’
Raisman has been thinking about the Games ever since she was 8 when she constantly watched the video of the Magnificent Seven winning gold in Atlanta. By then, she already had been in the gym for half a dozen years after starting with Mommy and Me classes.
After watching the Americans win the silver medal in 2004, Raisman turned up at Brestyan’s, where it soon was apparent that she had the goods.
“You can see right away,’’ the coach said. “I can build in my mind, ‘OK, that’s the future.’ ’’
Next in line
If the future arrived faster than most people might have imagined, it seemed to be right on schedule for Raisman, who figured that if Sacramone could make the team, she could, too.
“I kind of knew that I was going to be there someday,’’ she said. “Not being cocky, but I just wanted it so bad. I would get mad at people who said, ‘I don’t know if you can do that.’ I’d be like, ‘Yes I can.’
“I’ve always liked to be that person that proves people wrong.’’
Although the leap to the global stage in 2010 was a bit abrupt, Raisman made the all-around final and just missed a floor medal. Last year, when Sacramone hurt herself warming up at the world meet in Tokyo and had to withdraw, Raisman stepped in as team leader.
“Surprised? I wasn’t surprised,’’ said Brestyan. “Aly was educated under the same advice as Alicia. That’s what I put in their minds all the time. You have to keep first the team.’’
USA Gymnastics follows the same “next woman up’’ theme that the Karolyis used in the Nadia Comaneci days back in Romania.
“After Alicia was hurt, Aly was the only girl who ever participated in a world championship,’’ Martha Karolyi said. “Automatically as a teammate, you look at someone who already was there. Aly has a very good nature, she communicates well and always has an open personality.’’
Raisman is the big sister not only at home to a brother and two sisters but she also plays that role in the gym in Sacramone’s absence.
“Right now I’m the oldest one in the gym, so I think of the girls here as my little sisters,’’ she said. “To be able to help them is very special and it means a lot that they look up to me.’’
Though Raisman hasn’t been inside her high school all year, her friends make a point of staying in touch.
“I’ve actually been surprised because my social life’s been getting better,’’ she said. “Everyone makes more of an effort to see me because I don’t go to school. People text me and it’s nice having them be so supportive.’’
At the traditional Thanksgiving game at Wellesley, Needham’s powder-puff football team let Raisman take a victory lap with them.
“That was nice because I couldn’t play, obviously,’’ she said. “If I didn’t do gymnastics, I would have played, but I didn’t want to risk it. They said they were all bruised and got killed and it was freezing, so . . .’’
There’s enough risk indoors, where one slipped hand or splattered salto can make Olympus vanish.
“It’s scary, but she seems to do OK with it,’’ said Lynn, who was a gymnast at Newton South High School. “She seems not to let the pressure get to her. She knows how to put it to the side.’’
And how to use the Games as motivation, just as she did four years ago.
“Every day I do think about it when I’m in the gym,’’ Raisman said. “When I think I can’t do it any more, I think about the Olympics and just push myself to keep moving forward.’’