Commentary

Life on road leads Raisman to London

High-mileage gymnast balances her sport and her life with dexterity and toughness

Updated: July 25, 2012, 4:25 PM ET
By Brion O'Connor | Special to ESPNBoston.com

Lynn Raisman has lost track of the number of trips. Don't even ask about the number of miles.

But she knows all too well Route 128, along which the Raisman clan of Massachusetts has traveled the 20 miles or so between their home in Needham and Brestyan's American Gymnastics Club in Burlington, where Raisman's eldest daughter, Alexandra "Aly" Raisman, has honed her craft the past eight years.

"She'd wake up, run to the gym, run back to school, run back to the gym," she said. "It was crazy."

Aly Raisman
Jacob Belcher/ESPNHSEight years of twice-daily commutes for gymnastics training have paid off handsomely for Alexandra "Aly" Raisman.
But the hectic schedule had a clear purpose. As a result of those twice-daily commutes and long hours in the gym -- coupled with the genetic gifts provided by her parents (Lynn was a high school gymnast; and dad, Rick, was a hockey player) -- 18-year-old Aly Raisman will be competing in London as a member of the U.S. Olympic gymnastics squad.

"Making the team is a dream come true," Raisman said just before jetting off to England on Wednesday. "I am so honored and so excited to represent my country. It means the world to me."

That dream began as a toddler, when her mother enrolled Raisman in a "Mommy & Me" gymnastics class at 18 months. She trained with Excel Gymnastics until age 10, then moved on to Brestyan's American Gymnastics, operated by her current coaches, Mihai and Sylvie Brestyan. She rarely had to be coaxed into the car for the trip.

"For as long as I can remember, I always loved it and had such a passion for it," Raisman said of her sport. "I was always really inspired by watching the older girls competing, just seeing other Olympians do great things, and I just really wanted to be a part of that whole experience. And to be able to represent USA was always a goal of mine."

Raisman has twice represented the United States in the World Championships, in 2010 and 2011. Earlier this month, she was selected to her first Olympic squad (along with Jordyn Wieber, McKayla Maroney, Kyla Ross and Gabby Douglas) following the U.S. Olympic trials in San Jose, Calif. The selection was the crowning moment of a dizzying four-year run that vaulted Raisman to the upper echelon of gymnastics.

"When I first turned elite in gymnastics, when I was 14, that's when I really became more inspired than ever," she said. "I just always kept that in the back of my mind, and always thought about making the 2012 team."

Through the years, however, Raisman has been able to take the remarkable balance and dexterity that she displays during her routines and apply it to her life.

"The gymnastics definitely takes a priority, but she's very good with still trying to keep in touch with friends and having a little bit of normalcy," Lynn Raisman said. "I think if you don't have that, it's hard. It's just a very grueling sport. If you never allow yourself a little bit of downtime, and time with your friends and family, then it just kind of becomes a job."

The gymnastics definitely takes a priority, but she's very good with still trying to keep in touch with friends and having a little bit of normalcy.

-- Lynn Raisman, on her
Olympian daughter, Aly

Raisman attended Needham High School though her junior year, then opted to complete her senior year online when the demands of her gymnastics career proved increasingly tricky to juggle with academics. However, she returned to Needham in late May, before the Visa Championships in St. Louis, to attend her senior prom and graduate with her class.

"I feel like I'm really blessed and lucky that I have a very good social life outside of the gym, and I have a really amazing family," Raisman said. "My parents are so supportive. I have a younger brother and two younger sisters, and they're really awesome. So I feel like I get the best of both worlds.

"I don't feel like I'm missing out, because I still get to go to the Olympics, which is my ultimate dream and my ultimate goal, but I also get to have friends outside the gym, too."

"My school friends are really understanding and still want to hang out with me," she said. "Ever since I was in sixth grade, I was at the gym every day to work out while my friends were getting their nails done or going to the mall. I used to feel left out, but I don't anymore because I know what I'm doing is what I really want to do."

Gymnastics is Raisman's job now; indeed, she decided to forego a scholarship from the University of Florida to turn professional. The 5-foot-2 dynamo has already been featured in a number of ads, including those for sponsors like designer Ralph Lauren and America's Milk Processors, where she is dwarfed in the "Got Milk?" ad not only by NBA star Carmelo Anthony, but also by 45-year-old swimmer Dara Torres.

"I always wanted to try to be a professional and thought if I had the opportunity I should just give it a go," she said. "I feel like a lot of people can aspire to be a college gymnast, but I really wanted to try to do something different and try something new that was out of my comfort zone."

Raisman, who hopes to pursue a career in fashion following her competitive career, said she welcomes the opportunity to challenge Madison Avenue's notion of beauty.

"Sometimes it's hard, because people see these models -- they're so skinny -- and they try to be perfect like them, when in reality these girls don't eat anything or they touch up the pictures to make them look thinner than they really are," she said.

[+] EnlargeAly Raisman
AP Photo/Gregory BullRaisman, right, and Gabby Douglas are overcome with emotion after making the U.S. Olympic team at the gymnastics trials in early July.
"It's really great to have athletes that are modeling. I think that's a really great role model for kids. If you work hard, it makes it more possible for your dreams to come true. I was just a young girl that dreamed of doing stuff like that. So I hope that I could be a role model like Mary Lou Retton and other gymnasts and other athletes were for me."

At the U.S. Olympic trials, Raisman was sporting her favorite white and silver leotard, but she said she and her teammates are clearly gunning for gold.

"I feel really good. My workouts have been very consistent and I'm happy with where I am right now," she said. "You have to pace yourself so you peak at the right time. So it's hard, but training's been really good and I feel really confident. I've been pushing myself a lot."

Lynn Raisman said her daughter has always had the ability to push herself. But in a gym known for producing top-flight gymnasts (including Alicia Sacramone of Winchester, Mass., a 2008 Olympian who narrowly missed a spot on the 2012 team), her fortitude is what sets her apart. "It's her mental toughness," she said. "I don't think you teach that; you've just got it."

"Her mental toughness is just unbelievable. Obviously, she works very hard. She's very dedicated, very diligent about practicing and working with her coaches. But if you're going to fall apart when you're up there competing, it doesn't matter," Lynn Raisman said.

"I'm not really sure, to be honest with you, how she does that. I couldn't get up and just walk across the beam in front of 18,000 people. And she gets up there like it's nothing. I just think there's something unique about the kids who excel at this level; they're just able to get up there and act like they're at a practice. I think that's really a key to their success."

Her experience and consistency make Raisman the ideal "team" gymnast, according to Mihai Brestyan.

"She is somebody you can trust in competition," Brestyan told espnW's Michelle Smith after the U.S. Olympic trials. "She has proven this in 2010 worlds, in 2011. You can put your money on her in team competition all the time."

While Raisman certainly has the ability to excel in individual competition in London -- having won gold in the floor and balance beam disciplines at the Visa Championships in June -- her true value to the U.S. squad is to add depth.

"I'm definitely an all-arounder, and I definitely think my strongest events are floor and beam and vault," she said. "Those are the best events where I can contribute to the team competition. My bars are improving a lot, so I'm really excited about that." When asked, Raisman acknowledged that the thought of competing in the 2016 Olympics has crossed her mind. But she has no intention of getting ahead of herself.

"This whole process is so exciting and so surreal, because I've always dreamed of it, and to have it so close is just crazy," she said. "Just looking at the date, time flies by so fast. It's really important to remember to just keep working really hard and to give it my all so I have no regrets."

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