About 70 little girls were jumbled together on the mats at Exxcel Gymnastics and Climbing in Newton today, decked out in colorful leotards, big smiles and lots of love for their hometown hero, Aly Raisman.
The girls watched a giant projection of Raisman, who trained at the gym years ago, as she competed in the individual floor competition in the London 2012 Olympics, and nailed it, nabbing a gold medal for her score of 15.6.
"She was really good; awesome, actually. It’s the best she’s ever done," said 9-year-old Bella Valente.
When asked what it feels like to train in the same gym as a gold medalist, 8-year-old Emily Schoen said, "It makes me feel like a mini-Olympian."
"It inspires me to work harder. I want to be in the Olympics," chimed in Olivia Shih.
As Raisman stood at the top of the triad, medal in hand and hand on heart, Exxcel coach Tatiana Kamarskaya teared up a bit. She coached Raisman during her pre-teen years.
"It’s amazing. It feels like anybody can do it. She was one of those kids," Kamarskaya said, motioning to the throngs of excited 8-year-olds nearby.
"She was one of many, and you would never tell that she would end up in the Olympics, but you always believe in every single kid, but you never know… What I remember about Aly was her unbelievable strength, she was very strong."
Laura Fields, another coach at Exxcel, said Raisman's triumph translates to a lot of inspiration to her gymnastics students.
"They’re all standing up and screaming, and jumping. For them to see someone who went to this gym, then went for her dreams and won gold, it’s so inspiring to the kids. They will probably be extra motivated at practice, so it’s good for us coaches too."
A few miles away, in Raisman’s hometown of Needham, Mark Slade stood in front of Town Hall to photograph a banner congratulating her on leading the U.S. team to victory last week.
“I saw her practice at the high school,” said Slade, who works at Needham High School. “She’s pretty phenomenal and she’s got a good head on her shoulders. She’s very down to earth. A lot of this exposure she’s going through maybe it’s not her, because she’s very ‘behind the scenes.’ “
“The town is definitely behind her.”
Strolling around down town Needham, that point is obvious.
At Taylor’s Stationary, balloons and signs outside the store encourage and congratulate Raisman, and further down the road, a window mural of Raisman adorns the window of Sudbury Farms supermarket.
Just yesterday, the store was forced to stop selling giant “Aly Raisman Cookies” that had a sugar-scan of the Olympian’s face.
The problem was that the image was taken from the front page of a Boston-based magazine, causing a copyright conflict.
“It’s too bad,” said Bakery Manager Tom Young. “They were selling like crazy because people really liked them. Some customers are still asking about them, but we have these instead,” he said, pointing to a display of Olympics-themed cakes and cookies.
Sudbury staff is hopeful, however, that when Raisman returns home, she will visit the store.
There is no doubt that there will be much fanfare when she returns.
“I am sure there will definitely be some kind of celebration when she gets home,” said Corina Adriescu, Needham High School class president. Adriescu has been friendly with Raisman since the sixth grade, and describes her as “friendly, confident and humble.”
“It is so weird to see her on television. She seems exactly the same,” Adriescu said.