RIO DE JANEIRO — Only in the vernal world of gymnastics is a 22-year-old considered to be in the twilight of their career, as former Red Sox general manager Dan Duquette would say. In a sport traditionally dominated by pubescent idols and teenaged tumblers, Needham’s Aly Raisman is making her golden years count and upping her medal count.
Raisman’s Olympic sequel got a silver medal in the individual all-around Thursday. It was the all-around medal that had slipped through her grasp four years ago, as an esoteric tiebreaker barred her from the medal stand.
Our Aly was the bottom half of a dominant 1-2 finish at Rio Olympic Arena with the incomparable Simone Biles.
Who says gymnasts can’t get better with age?
“I feel like I’m better than I was in 2012,” said Raisman. “I’m very proud of that. It’s obviously not something that people expected or that’s easy to do after you’re taking a year off or having it be the second Olympics or being the ‘Grandma’ or whatever they like to say. So, I’m happy I proved everyone wrong.”
Aly with a Y vaulted into our hearts at the 2012 Summer Games. She is the local girl made golden as part of the Fierce Five. She is Doug Flutie with tumbling passes instead of touchdown passes.
Raisman could have lived off that for the rest of her life. She did it for a year after the 2012 Games. There was gabbing with David Letterman, delving into reality TV with “Dancing with the Stars” and walking the red carpet at the Golden Globes.
But Raisman bucked the odds, adult physiology, and the Darwinian US Gymnastics development program to return and capture the coveted individual Olympic medal that eluded her in London.
Raisman now has five Olympic medals, three golds. She won a second straight team gold with the US in Rio. In 2012, she became the first US gymnast to win a gold medal on floor exercise and won a bronze on balance beam in a tiebreaker. But that didn’t erase the sour taste of losing the bronze medal in the all-around to Russia’s Aliya Mustafina on a tiebreaker after they finished with the exact same score.
“Obviously, it was very heartbreaking and devastating because I worked so hard,” said Raisman. “Everything happens for a reason. I didn’t know the reason until now, but now I finally do. I have a silver medal.”
As fate and qualification would have it, Raisman ended up in the same rotation as Mustafina for the Rio all-around final.
Raisman was in fourth place after the first two rotations on vault and uneven bars, which is Mustafina’s mid-air metier. The Russian’s performance there put her in first place midway through.
But no one was beating Biles.
The third rotation saw the contenders on balance beam, the Heartbreak Hill of gymnastics.
Raisman had an interminable wait for the event that would make or break her medal quest. She was the last of the six competitors in her group on beam. She had been the first one up on uneven bars the previous rotation.
It was a long time to think about what could go wrong, to re-live her minor slip-up from 2012. Her coach, Mihai Brestyan, went into action, making sure Raisman’s pulse didn’t sabotage her points total.
“That’s a long time. It’s hard to keep the kid’s focus. The first step I relax her, and then we start to refocus for the beam,” said Brestyan.
“You don’t need a super routine, just a normal routine. Just stay there. Don’t go down because we know if she stays there the score will come, and it will be enough to catch up with Mustafina. Then you come back on my street. When you are on my street. Then it’s my game.”
Raisman’s game is the floor exercise.
She delivered a steely-eyed performance on the balance beam. Even to a gymnastics novice her 14.866 felt low, but it was enough to vault her into medal territory heading into the final rotation at 44.665, tucked behind second-place Mustafina (44.732)
After Mustafina registered a 13.933 with a floor routine that lacked the tenacity and tumbling of the Americans, all Raisman needed was to score 14 or higher to secure the silver.
Raisman delivered an emotional and elegant aerial performance that easily earned a 15.433 for a total of 60.098. As it concluded, all the years of hard work and sacrifice came bubbling to the surface, along with tears of joy.
The Old Lady was a silver star.
She waved to the crowd, ran off the floor, and jumped into the arms of Brestyan, who dropped his stoic demeanor. Raisman stuck that landing too. Brestyan kissed Raisman on the forehead.
They had done it together. They had upgraded routines, staved off younger claims to the throne, and rebuilt Raisman.
They had brought her back from the abyss to stand on the medal stand next to Biles, who crushed gravity and the field to finish with a 62.198 score.
“I watched Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin do it in 2008. So, now to be able to do that with Simone, it’s very special,” Raisman said.
It was something Raisman acknowledged she didn’t think was possible until a few weeks ago.
“I know me and Aly, we know all the time we are the underdog, and the underdog sometimes is biting harder,” said Brestyan. “We never complain about it. I tell her don’t read Facebook. Don’t look at the newspaper. Stay in the gym, and I’ll make you happy. Don’t worry.”
It took Raisman more than a year to convince Brestyan she was coming back to gymnastics with the proper mind-set. He told her don’t come back if you’re more interested in being Aly Raisman the celebrity than Aly Raisman the world-class gymnast.
Raisman came back in part for this moment, this medal.
She has one more shot to add to her hardware on Tuesday, when she defends her floor title.
In a sport where Olympic ability and acclaim has the lifespan of a mayfly, Raisman created an everlasting memory.
She is an oldy, but a goody.