NEEDHAM — It was an ugly moment.
Aly Raisman landed on a 4-inch-wide balance beam from a mid-air somersault and struggled to catch her balance, flailing and kicking out her right leg to stop herself from falling.
It likely would ruin her shot to medal in the women’s all-around gymnastics competition. But for hundreds of Raisman’s fans gathered in Needham Town Hall on Thursday to cheer their Olympic sweetheart, the recovery showed the gymnast’s heart.
“When she made that save, the amount of strength it took,” said Rachel Korsunsky, 18, who attended high school with Raisman. “She was hanging on by her toes.”
“That save, it made your heart stop,” agreed Cassie Sham, 18, another former classmate.
It was a disappointing day for Raisman, 18, who missed a bronze medal in the women’s individual all-around event Thursday by .567 points. But you wouldn’t know it from the 400 Needham residents who were cheering her on while watching a live stream of her performance on a projector screen.
“Just to have her go to the Olympics, as far as I’m concerned, she’s a champion,” said Raisman’s maternal grandmother, Susan Faber, 71.
“She did a great job, absolutely,” said her paternal grandfather, Marty Raisman, who sat next to Faber in the front row. “We’re very proud.”
Raisman, who won a gold medal Tuesday in the team gymnastics competition, will have two more opportunities for additional medals. Next Tuesday, she is scheduled to compete in the individual balance beam and individual floor routine events.
As an audience filled with hope and jitters waited for the start of NBC’s Internet live-feed, girls and boys drew signs, paraded through the aisles waving American flags, and chanted renditions of “Let’s go, Aly, let’s go!”
The emcee, Needham resident Stacey Fallon, even used a lull in the action after the vault competition to poke fun at the much-watched video of Raisman’s parents swaying and squealing with anxiety in their seats.
Dividing the audience in half, she instructed some to shout “Stick it!” — Lynn Raisman’s catchphrase — and commanded others to release a guttural “Ahhhh!,” a la Ricky Raisman.
“The parental squirm,” Fallon said. “It’s the new dance, it’s taking the nation!”
While the boisterous crowd screamed every time Raisman was shown hopping in place or stretching her hamstrings during warm-ups, they fell silent when her turn came up to be judged.
As she leapt onto the uneven bars, State Representative Denise C. Garlick, who stood against a wall in the auditorium, held her hand to her mouth, transfixed. A girl in the audience chewed on her rolled-up American flag as she watched each swing.
Raisman’s solid performance and confident dismount prompted a round of cheers.
Next up: The balance beam. Raisman’s shaky performance caused a string of gasps, and a boy hid his face behind his “Go Aly!” sign. The gymnast’s biggest mishap prompted moans of alarm that would have been more appropriate in a horror movie. But then came a surge of encouraging words: “C’mon, Aly!” yelled one woman. “You can do it, girl!”
The crowd’s reaction matched Raisman’s crestfallen face on the projector screen, but supporters familiar with Raisman’s gymnastics career knew that things would look up during Raisman’s floor routine — the last of four components in the women’s all-around event — her forte.
“The balance beam is never her best event, but she’s fantastic on the floor,” Faber said.
They weren’t disappointed: Raisman performed graceful splits, energetic flips, and neat, controlled descents to the mat. Children and adults whistled, whooped, and gave her a standing ovation.
“She stuck. Every. Landing.” praised 12-year-old Jenny Hayden matter-of-factly.
In the end, Raisman’s teammate Gabby Douglas won the gold. Raisman tied for third place with Russia’s Aliya Mustafina, but was edged out of the bronze medal on a tie-breaking technicality.
“You wish it was Aly who won,” said Kim Marie Nicols, 53, of Needham. “But she’s already a winner.”
“We’re just so proud,” said Ariella Esterkin, 17, a friend of Raisman’s.
“Fourth place in the Olympics is still a big deal,” Korsunsky said.
“Not fourth,” Esterkin corrected. “Third-and-a-half!”