Hundreds of fans, including many girls aspiring to be the area's next star gymnast, turned out Thursday morning to greet Olympic gold medal winner Aly Raisman at her Burlington gym.
The fans formed a long line outside Brestyan’s American Gymnastics Club, where Raisman trained for several years before her medal-winning performances in London this summer.
Raisman, joined by her father and siblings, signed autographs and posed for pictures.
"I'm happy to be home,'' she said, adding that the past few days have been hectic. "Nothing has sunk in yet.''
Raisman, an 18-year-old Needham resident, arrived at Logan International Airport Wednesday afternoon, met by dozens of journalists, family members and fans.
At today's event in Burlington, Raisman's father Rick stood on the tent's sidelines, greeting aspiring young gymnasts and fans of his daughter, stopping to also pose for pictures.
"It hasn't even been a day with her home yet," he said, adding that the two have barely had time to talk. "It's the first night she's been home in over a month."
He said that Aly's fame upon arriving home has been both exciting and overwhelming.
"It's just amazing - the response is huge," he said. "Helicopters followed us from the airport home, and then two hovered over our house last night." He pointed up. "Look, there are helicopters up in the sky right now. It's wild."
Besides the press, young gymnasts are also going wild for Aly. Young girls ranging in ages from toddler to teen waited in line for up to an hour for the golden chance to congratulate the local star and receive a signed photo of Raisman at the Olympics.
"She's a really good gymnast," said Emmalyn Dearborn, an 8-year-old state champion in gymnastics herself. "I want to go to the Olympics, too."
Dearborn's mom, Jessica, added that her daughter looked up to Raisman, and said she appreciated the local's success.
"Aly lets these little girls know that if they follow their dreams, anything is possible," she said. "It just takes a little bit of hard work.
A Burlington 11-year-old, Kiera Murphy, looked down at her signed picture of Raisman as she exited the tent where the Olympian sat.
"It was really fun meeting her," Murphy said, adding that there was not really much time to have a long conversation with the local star. "It was really fun watching her at the Olympics. I'm probably going to frame this picture and put it on my mantle."
On the other side of the tent, a group of young gymnasts from Wilmington's GymStreet USA excitedly waited in line for a chance to meet Raisman. Sabrina Spadafora, an 8-year-old from Reading, clutched a magazine profiling the US women's gymnastics team, hoping that she would score an autograph on it from the gold medalist.
"I want to go the Olympics now!" said an emphatic Spatafora. "I don't know what I'm going to say to her yet. I'm kind of nervous."
Young instructors from Newton's Exxcel Gymnastics, where Raisman trained as a young girl, said they could see the influence Raisman's Olympic performances had on their students.
"I can see it in the faces of the girls we're coaching," said Rachael Ackley, 18. "While we were following the Olympics, they were so excited and now they all want to go to the Olympics, too."
Her fellow coach, Megan Lapp, 18, said she trained with Raisman at Exxcel when the two were in middle school.
"She was really strong and good at gymnastics, even back then," Lapp said.
Khazia Hislop, 14, said she is a gymnast at Brestyan's like Raisman, and remembered seeing her practice her Olympic routine every day.
"She's really funny," Hislop said. "She always has a positive attitude and always keeps her chin up."
Hislop said she enjoyed watching Raisman's hard work pay off, adding that she followed her Olympic performances during the past few weeks.
"I want to be just like her and go to the Olympics and win gold like she did," Hislop said.
Even local business owners have jumped to celebrate Raisman's homecoming. Corn and Co., a popcorn store opening at the Burlington Mall next month, offered small bags of popcorn to attendees titled "Aly's Medal Mix."
The Medal Mix, consisting of cheddar and caramel coated popcorns, represents the two colors of the medals Raisman won - gold and bronze, said company co-founder Steven Berlin.
"We're a community-based business," Berlin said, adding that the owners had fun creating a signature mix for the medal-winner. "The colors represent her medals, and also gives people a taste of two signature flavors, caramel and cheddar."
Friends of the local gymnast also flocked to the event, hoping to get a quick hug in and to see their friend who has been gone for over a month.
After speaking to reporters, Raisman rushed off her podium to embrace the handful of Needham girls who had shown up.
"She's really modest," said one of her friends, Jackie Foreman, 18. "She never even talked about her gymnastics with us before all this."
Julie Levine, 18, agreed.
"It's amazing," she said. "I didn't know how famous she is. You don't even realize she's a gold medalist."
The girls from Needham are not the only ones celebrating the hometown hero's return: the town of Needham is also planning a parade next week to show their support and welcome Raisman home.
"It will be reminiscent of a small town homecoming, which we think is appropriate for Needham honoring one of its children," said Sandy Cincotta, a town support services manager. "We’re hoping it’s a success and that everyone who wants to wish Aly well will be in attendance."
The town also ordered about 20 metal signs to put up around town reading a greeting along the lines of "Welcome to Needham, home of Aly Raisman."
"We'll be putting them up at the main entrances to town and in certain various junctions," Cincotta said.
Raisman herself seems to be happy being back in the Bay State. She tweeted to her 447,000 followers last night after arriving home in Needham, "Being home is the best feeling in the world."
Jaclyn Reiss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org