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As US team wins gold, cheers fill Newton gym where Aly Raisman got her start

Posted by Leslie Anderson  July 31, 2012 03:16 PM

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Dina Rudick/Globe Staff
Campers at Exxcel Gymnastics & Climbing in Newton watched as the US women's gymnastics team competed for its first gold medal.

The Newton gym broke out in screams when the scores were announced: the US Women’s gymnastics team – their team, headed by their girl Aly Raisman – had edged out Russia to take the gold.

Seventy-five little gymnasts slammed their fists and feet against the ground as the scores came in, chanting "USA! USA! USA!"

But the gymnasts and staff at Exxcel Gymnastics and Climbing, where team captain Raisman got her start, never doubted for a moment that the United States would take home the gold.

“I knew they were going to win,” said Laura Fields, Prep Optional Team Coordinator and Summer Camp Director for Exxcel, who remembers Raisman as a determined 7-year-old excited by every new trick she learned. “No doubt in my mind.”

Coaches jerry-rigged a movie theater in the gym so that the campers spending their summers honing their gymnastics skills could watch their idol perform: an iPad hooked to a radio hooked to a projector. They shut off the lights and spent lunch glued to the competition, pulling for their hometown hero.

“I love the whole team, but I mostly love Aly Raisman,” said Emily Stoller, 9, who, like Raisman, is from Needham. Stoller knows everything about the US team, and especially about Raisman – she watches her perform, reads about her online, and has even met her. Raisman, said Stoller, is “so nice.” She pointed with reverence to the front of the gym, to the spot where she came face to face with her idol. “Right on those benches.”

Stoller’s red leotard even looks a bit like the Team USA uniforms.

“Sometimes I feel like I’m her,” said Stoller, who won the state gymnastic championships this year for level four gymnasts in her age group. “I can just imagine me, someday, being an Olympian.”

Children ages 3 to 17 laid on the bouncy blue floor of the gym in the dark, legs and arms periodically flung into the air like the gymnasts they were watching on the projector.

As the Americans performed their floor routines, sailing to impossible heights in twisting flips and sticking landing after landing, Exxcel gymnasts cheered their names, dissolving into shrieks and clapping when their 90 seconds were up. Below the screen, boys flipped through the air on a trampoline, doing round-off back handsprings and cartwheels.

“It’s crazy to think that she was here, and she knew all the coaches,” said Lauren Lazaro, 11, who said she’s been coming to Exxcel for four years, but has been doing gymnastics “since before I was born.”

When Russia took to the floor, a coach announced that their main competitor had arrived – they wanted the Russians to do well, but not too well.

The Olympics have been keeping some of the Exxcel’s gymnasts up late.

“I stay up til 12!” chirped Olivia Shih, 7. “Only on Olympic nights.”

But despite the campers' excited sleeplessness, their coaches say the Olympics are a big motivator – the kids come in ready to sweat.

“It makes working harder a little bit easier,” said Melissa McManus, Recreational and Team Director, who babysat Raisman when she was little. “We don’t have to do anything on purpose – it’s the fire inside of them.”

“I think it’s inspirational,” said Ashley Donnellan, 12, who has been doing gymnastics since she was just 3 years old. “We go here, and anything can happen.”

On Friday, the gym is holding an Aly Raisman sleepover. They’ll watch Raisman compete for the gold in the all-around gymnast competition. They’re planning a poster contest. Some of the girls are already planning their posters – there will be glitter everywhere. It seems unlikely that anyone will sleep.

“It’s cool to see it come full circle. We see these little kids,” said McManus, gesturing to the sea of leotards in front of her, “and Aly was a little kid, and now, she’s in the Olympics.”

Evan Allen can be reached at

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