As part of Metro's ongoing coverage leading up to the 2012 Olympic Games in London, we're introducing readers to the athletes who will be representing the United States. Previously: fencer Daryl Homer.
Aly Raisman discovered gymnastics at age two when her mother enrolled her in a "Mommy and Me" class and she hasn't quit since. Fresh from the Olympic trials, where she qualified for the U.S. Women's team, the Needham, Massachusetts-native is now gearing up for a week-long training camp in Texas where she will spend six-and-a-half hours in the gym each day, putting the finishing touches on her routines for London.
Raisman spent years training at Brestyan's American Gymnastics in Burlington under the guidance of head coach Mihai Brestyan, where she worked tirelessly to improve herself for competitions and championships around the globe. At age 18, she conducts herself with poise beyond her years and seems to effortlessly stave off the pressure that comes with being a team leader.
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Metro caught up with Raisman as she prepares to embark on the athletic journey of a lifetime.
Metro: How much pressure did you feel at the Olympic trials? What is it like to participate in a single event that had so much impact on your career?
Raisman: I tried not to think so much about the pressure and that my whole world would never be the same regardless of how I did. But making the Olympic team, I know my life won’t ever be the same, so I just wanted to go in and enjoy it because it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity.
What were your first thoughts after learning that you qualified?
I was kind of overcome with emotions. We were all so excited and so happy. It was like a sigh of relief because I had been thinking about it for so long. In the months leading up, I was so anxious. At the same time, it was a mixed feeling because the nerves came back again, because I know I have to compete in London and it’s going to be a tough competition, and I want to do as well as I can for my country.
You’re just 18-years-old — which is a mature age for a gymnast — but what is it like to be heading to the biggest event of your career so early on in your life?
It's really crazy and so surreal and I’m so happy that at 18, I can accomplish my life-long goal. I’m the oldest girl on the team, but I’ve been to two world championships, so I also have the most experience on the team. It’s so exciting and I just can’t wait to compete. We have such a great bond and can’t wait to share the experience with them.
Fellow gymnast Alicia Sacramone has called you the “backbone” of the US team. How do you stay strong under pressure as a leader for your teammates?
I try not to think of it as pressure, but more as confidence when I’m competing. When I’m in team competitions, I just do what I do everyday and work so hard and listen to my coaches’ advice. They always tell me the right things and push me to my limits so by the time I get to the competitions, I feel like I can do the routines in my sleep.
Who do you think your biggest competition will be in London?
Definitely the Russians, and the Romanians just beat them in the European championship so that’s obviously a problem for us because we have to worry about China and Romania. So those three countries are the ones to beat.
Do you have any role models who help you find inspiration?
My teammates. Even though they are younger, I still look up to them because they work so hard and they inspire me to do better every day. We work so well together as a team and have such a strong bond.
Do you ever have an off day during training and how do you get through it?
Of course I have off days, and it’s never easy. I think the hardest time is getting into routine shape because sometimes you’ve lost endurance and it’s all very mental. Your body is telling you you can’t do more but your mind has to be tough enough to do more when your coaches ask you to do another routine. I think the harder days are what make you stronger because when you have a really good workout you can compare it and feel that accomplishment.
What is your favorite meal to eat before an event? How about after an event?
I like to just have chicken. It’s light but has enough protein to give me enough energy. After the Olympics, it will be a different story, because we will have a little break. But because gymnastics is year round, you can’t really splurge or have something you shouldn’t have. Like my coaches always say, right after a meet is right before the next competition, so I just try to have something healthy again, more protein to replenish my muscles.
Do you have any superstitions or lucky charms?
I really don’t have superstitions. I realized as I competed more, that doesn’t have any effect on how I do. It’s more about a positive attitude. I like to call my parents before I compete because it makes me feel better to hear their voices. Usually, they aren’t at the competitions with me. So it’s like a 30-second phone call, but it makes me feel better.
With such an intense schedule, how do you make time for regular teen stuff like hanging out with friends or dating?
I do feel like I have a good social life and I feel lucky to get the best of both worlds. But my social life in the last couple months, it’s been on a halt. I still text my school friends and they might come by and see me when I don’t want to go out or go shopping and I’d rather sit and rest. It’s all worth it, though, and I got to go to prom. I went with a guy friend, Jamie, who is not my boyfriend, but he’s a really nice kid.
As a Needham-native, do you have a message to the people of your town and state who will be cheering you on at the Olympic Games?
Thank you for all the support. I really appreciate it and it helps me a lot. It means the world to me to know they are rooting for me, and I hope to make them proud.
What are your post-Olympic plans? Are you heading to school or keeping your focus on gymnastics?
I think after the Olympics, I will do the Kelloggs Tour, which is 40 cities in three months, and the guy gymnasts are doing it, too, so it will be fun experience. School is in my plans but not next year because I’m going on tour. But I definitely want to do something in fashion.