Screams broke out in the Newton gym when the scores were announced: The US women’s gymnastics team – their team, headed by their girl, Aly Raisman – had triumphed over 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 at Exxcel Gymnastics and Climbing, where team captain Raisman trained as a child, never doubted for a moment that the United States would take home the gold Tuesday.
“I knew they were going to win,” said Laura Fields, a 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.”
Raisman’s floor routine capped off the victory, as the US team beat the Russians by more than 5 points, with the Chinese defending champions finishing fourth behind Romania. Raisman is competing in the women’s all-around final Thursday.
Coaches jury-rigged a movie theater in the Exxcel gym so that the campers spending the summer 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. She watches her perform, reads about her online, and has even met her. 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.”
Raisman mania has taken hold all over Needham, where signs in windows and along streets wish Aly and the US team good luck. The Fire Department has been watching the Olympics since the opening ceremonies, said Chief Paul Buckley, and will use an aerial truck to help hang a celebratory banner on Town Hall this week.
“This is a great moment for the town,” said Jerry Wasserman, chairman of the Board of Selectmen. Raisman, he said, is an inspiration to Needham, especially to its little girls, who mobbed her at the town’s Independence Day celebration, he said. “It is a wonderful thing.”
The town, he said, will celebrate Raisman when she comes home from London, but officials are trying not to bother her or her family while she competes, so the party has yet to be planned.
Raisman’s friends from high school are glued to their screens when Raisman competes.
“It’s so weird to see one of your best friends now becoming such a famous athlete and all her dreams coming true,” said Maddie McGill, 19, who has been friends with Raisman since their freshman year in high school.
She watched the US team perform from her home in Needham Tuesday. Seeing her friend compete in the Olympics, she said, is an intense experience.
“You just want her to stick it,” said McGill. “Everyone’s just on the edge of their seats.”
The Olympics have been keeping some of Exxcel’s gymnasts up late.
“I stay up till 12!” chirped Olivia Shih, 7. “Only on Olympic nights.”
The Exxcel coaches say the Olympics are a big motivator: Despite their sleeplessness, the kids come in ready to sweat.
“It makes working harder a little bit easier,” said Melissa McManus, team director, who baby-sat Raisman when she was little.
“I think it’s inspirational,” said Ashley Donnellan, 12, a gymnast since she was just 3. “We go here, and anything can happen.”
On Friday, the gym is holding an Aly Raisman sleepover. A poster contest is planned. Some of the girls are already imagining their posters: There will be glitter everywhere.
“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.”