Aly Raisman steps back into gymnastics training
Go or no go? Either way, why? Aly Raisman won a couple of gymnastics gold medals at the London Olympics last year, so it figures that she would keep tumbling all the way to Rio de Janeiro for a reprise in 2016. Or it figures that she should call it a career at 19 and move on.
“Either people just assume I’m coming back or I get, why would you bother coming back?” said the Needham native, who will be honored Tuesday night at TD Garden by The Sports Museum along with Jack Nicklaus, Doug Flutie, Carlton Fisk, Derek Sanderson, Vince Wilfork, and the Celtics ownership group. “That’s my least favorite question in the world. It’s not about medals. It’s about doing what you love to do.”
That’s why Raisman is back at her old gym in Burlington where her Olympic odyssey began nearly a decade ago with coach Mihai Brestyan. After a year’s worth of the red-carpet treatment, she is making her re-entry into normal life.
“Of course, I’ve never had a normal life,” Raisman said, only half-jokingly.
Her new normal includes a couple of classes at Babson, her sponsorship commitments, her charity work, and her public appearances. Almost all of what’s in her date book was the byproduct of a few dozen minutes of inspired work in London, where Raisman captained the US team to the most impressive victory in Games history, won an individual gold on floor exercise, collected a bronze on balance beam, and just missed another in the all-around on a tiebreaker.
“It’s amazing and crazy,” she marveled.
Not that it was surprising. The Americans were expected to win the team gold as defending world champions, and floor was Raisman’s best event. The trick was to cash the favorite’s ticket when the moment came, when a single misstep could knock you off the podium.
“The Olympics was so much pressure for the five of us,” said Raisman, who was a Games rookie like the rest of her teammates. “We’d trained our whole lives for it, but at the same time we were confident.”
Gabby Douglas won the all-around, McKayla Maroney took a vault silver that would have been gold but for a bottom-first landing, and Raisman collected her pair from the apparatus finals. The question for all of the Fierce Five, which also included former world champion Jordyn Wieber and Kyla Ross, was: What next?
Only Maroney and Ross competed in this summer’s national championships in Hartford, where the quintet was inducted into the USA Gymnastics Hall of Fame. It was too soon for Raisman to get back into a competitive leotard.
“I desperately needed a break,” she said.
Her schedule was jammed as it was, particularly with her “Dancing with the Stars” adventure.
“It was life-changing,” said Raisman, who reached the finals with partner Mark Ballas. “For the first time in my life, to do something out of my comfort zone. I didn’t feel any pressure but I was nervous because you have five days to learn dances you’ve never tried before.”
“Dancing with the Stars” was part of the goodie bag of perks that can come with a gold medal. Raisman got to light the torch at this summer’s Maccabiah Games in Jerusalem, where she took her family for a vacation. She appeared on David Letterman’s show and “Access Hollywood” (where she was drug-tested because she still was Olympic-eligible) and threw out the first pitch at Fenway. She helped develop her signature line of leotards for GK Elite.
Meanwhile, the next quadrennium was beginning without her.
Less than two months after the London Games, US coach Martha Karolyi was convening two dozen juniors at the team’s Houston boot camp, her eye already on Rio.
“We have to think about the next generation,” she said.
The captain of the Class of 2012, of course, is welcome to stick around.
“Martha said, ‘I’m not putting any pressure on you,’ ” said Raisman. “ ‘Whenever you’re ready to come back, we have open arms for you.’ ”
While she wasn’t prepared to compete this season, Raisman felt the urge to get back in gear.
“It took me a long time, but one morning I woke up and said, I’m ready to come back,” she said. “Now that I’m back, I feel like a little kid again.”
It took 16 years in the gym for that little kid to scale Olympus, and even for champions, return trips are far from automatic. Five of the six members of the 2008 team, including Raisman’s former clubmate Alicia Sacramone, tried to make the 2012 squad. None did. Age, weight, injuries, and the challenge of mastering difficult new tricks make reprises rare, but they do happen. Dominique Dawes, one of the Magnificent 7 in 1996, made one more team (in 2000) and won another medal.
Raisman will be only 22 in the next Olympic year and she has managed to stay healthy in a sport that rips up shoulder, knees, and ankles. She already may have two golds as keepsakes, but she wouldn’t mind collecting a third in the all-around.
“It’s never enough,” she said. “You can always do more. Of course I would like to win more medals for my country. It’s just the most amazing thing.”
Having done it, Raisman has no illusions about what it would take again: hundreds of hours in the gym with Brestyan pushing her. So she has been making the most of her sabbatical.
“My coaches told me, take the year to have fun,” she said. “Do whatever you want to do because once you come back, that’s it.”
So she has tried to keep her new normal life in balance. Two mornings a week at Babson (“I hadn’t been in a classroom since junior year of high school.”). Her calendar commitments, which include hosting a Weston charity event next month benefiting Uniting Against Lung Cancer, the disease that claimed her grandmother two years ago.
But the road to Rio goes through the gym on Ray Avenue, and there are no shortcuts.
The best thing about a reprise, though, is that it means you’ve been there once. So why not take the shot?
“I feel like I’ve already done it,” Raisman said. “So if it doesn’t go my way, at least I’ve done what I always wanted to do.”