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U.S. Gymnast is Ready for London Olympics

Aly Raisman has performed her "Hava Nagila" floor routine for about a year—and now she hopes it can help her take home the Gold.

By Dvora Meyers
July 2012

 Photo credit: Heather Maynez

On the evening of July 1 in San Jose, Calif., at the Olympic Trials, when Alexandra Raisman, 18, of Needham, Mass., was announced as one of the five members of the U.S. women’s Olympic gymnastics team, she burst into tears in front of the sold-out crowd. It was a fitting display of emotion for a young gymnast who has trained for years and has finally realized her greatest athletic goal. But to fans of the unflappable gymnast who is known for remarkable consistency and focus in competitions, her emotional display was surprising, to say the least.

It was even surprising to members of her own family.

“She is not emotional at all. We never see her get choked up about stuff,” says her mother, Lynn Raisman.

Her mom and her fans have long grown accustomed to watching the New England teen hit her stride. She’s had nary a fall in international competition. Her mother, a former lower-level gymnast, has no clue where her daughter’s focus and resolve come from. “I think she’s just always been very driven and very hungry,” Lynn observes.

World champion and Olympic silver medalist Alicia Sacramone, 24, who trains with Raisman at Brestyan’s Gymnastics in Burlington, Mass., has also sung her training partner’s praises. As Sacramone told the Associated Press, “At the last two world championships, I don’t think she’s made any mistakes. She’s the backbone. If you want her to go and do something, do a solid routine, she’s going to do it…She’s not necessarily as flashy as Jordyn [Wieber] or Gabby [Douglas], and that’s why people look past her.”

Raisman was not an overnight sensation. Her rising popularity among gymnastics fans and the general public has been the work of at least three years. Though she started gymnastics as young as any of the other elite gymnasts—at 18 months, to be exact—Raisman was never a phenom. She wasn’t heralded at age 11 or 12 as the next big thing, as her Olympic teammate Jordyn Wieber, the defending world champion, had been. Around that age, she was switching gyms to train with the Romanian-born Mihai and Sylvia Brestyan, who were becoming better known domestically as Sacramone’s coaches. Prior to setting up shop in New England, the pair had trained the Israeli national team until the mid-’90s.

Raisman started to climb the ranks under the Brestyans’ tutelage and had solid results as a junior, placing third all-around at the 2009 national championships before becoming eligible to compete with the older group.

But still, she was not an immediate favorite when she entered the senior ranks in 2010 with a second-place all-around finish at the American Cup and a berth on the world championship team. Many observers underestimated her, attributing some of her success to a depleted senior field—some of the nation’s top gymnasts were still age-ineligible to compete in 2010—and assumed she would be pushed aside when the burgeoning superstars entered the fray. But Raisman quietly went back to the gym and upgraded her routines and focused on her form and execution, which have been noted weaknesses. She converted many skeptics into believers with her performance at the 2011 World Championships in Tokyo, where she led the team to a gold medal, placed fourth on the balance beam and earned a bronze medal individually on her best event, the floor exercise. (She is the current national champion on beam and floor.)

At that competition, Raisman unexpectedly became the team leader after Sacramone, a veteran of multiple world championships, withdrew after rupturing her Achilles tendon. But as the oldest of four siblings, Raisman easily slipped into this role. Before she and two of her teammates were about to compete in the floor exercise, the final event of the meet, Raisman pulled them aside for a pep talk. The Americans went on to win the gold in a commanding fashion.

In addition to trying to help the U.S. women competing in London to win their first team gold medal since 1996, Raisman, known for her astounding tumbling, is also in contention for a medal—maybe even the title—for her floor exercise, which she performs to “Hava Nagila.”

Though Raisman has said she is proud to be using this niggun (Jewish tune) “because there aren’t too many Jewish elites out there,” it was actually Martha Karolyi, the national team coordinator, who had suggested using something akin to Jewish wedding music, according to Lynn Raisman. It was Aly Raisman’s ever-supportive mother who conducted the Internet search for the cut Raisman performs to—an up-tempo version with quirky whistling throughout.

Photo credit: Heather Maynez

Raisman has been performing her “Hava” floor routine for more than a year now and her comfort with it seems to have increased, as has the audience’s enjoyment. This aspect of her game, namely her artistry, has been harshly critiqued, and she paid close attention to it in training.

“I feel if you look at her presentation on floor a year and a half ago to now, there’s so much growth. She is connecting to the music better,” Lynn Raisman notes.

It certainly doesn’t hurt that “Hava” is familiar to the audience; it is Hollywood’s musical shorthand for “Jewish,” and it appears in nearly every pop culture depiction of a traditional wedding. And folk tunes, in general, are simple and catchy to clap along to, something that spurs Raisman as she performs.

At the Olympics, she’ll hope to get the crowd behind her once again with this routine, as well as the other three pieces. If Raisman is successful, we might witness those uncharacteristic tears once again, this time atop an Olympic podium.

Dvora Meyers is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Slate, Deadspin, Tablet and several other publications. She is also the author of Heresy on the High Beam: Confessions of an Unbalanced Jewess.

From The Jerusalem Post: Jerusalem of Gold: Raisman invited to Israel

From The Times of Israel: Golden Raisman honors slain Israelis

From JTA: Aly Raisman won a gold medal in the floor exercise as well as a bronze on the balance beam at the London Olympics

From JTA: Aly Raisman leads U.S. to gymnastics team gold

From BostonHerald.com: Aly Raisman steps into limelight after Olympic stunner

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