One of the last things Aly Raisman said to me before our conversation ended was that she thinks about the fact that she is an Olympian everyday. So, on a rare day outside the gym, less than a week before she was scheduled to reunite with her teammates in a pre-London camp, the eighteen-year-old Olympic gymnast lent a bit of her free time to fill me in on life, gymnastics and the pursuit of Gold.
Shannon Hovan: The past few months have been busy, a rough schedule even, for you and your teammates – You had the Secret Classic, followed by VISA Championships, and finally Olympic Trials. Does it get harder now, or would you say all of that was the hard part and now you are maybe more at ease heading into London?
Aly Raisman: That was the most physically exhausting time; getting in numbers and getting in routines. Now it’s less about numbers and more about getting the routines as perfectly as you can. Training is still exhausting, but knowing that I made the Olympic Team makes it a bit easier mentally.
SH: So, I watched Day 2 of trials the other night for a second time – After the team was announced, and the five of you – Gabby, Jordyn, Kyla and Mckayla walk out onto the floor, I see you – And girl, you are crying – I can actually make out you saying “I can’t breathe” – Where did all of that emotion come from?
AR: I think I just worked so hard. This year, I’ve been so anxious because you work your whole life to make your dream come true. In the gym I’ve been working so hard. Being named to that team was such a sigh of relief.
SH: I read recently that *Marta Karolyi referred to you as “sturdy”; which I interpreted to mean that you are a gymnast that can be relied on. Would you say that that is who you are to this team – You can be relied on to give a solid performance in any event, whenever it is needed?
AR: I mean I always try to be really consistent. When I’m at the gym I try to do practice my routines and then practice them some more to stay consistent.
SH: I’m not an expert, but as I’m watching you, you execute your routines, especially on beam, you seem to be almost waltzing through them. I mean, you just look so composed. Are you really as composed as you look out there?
AR: Yea, I think so. I really feel pretty relaxed just because I do my routines so many times everyday. I just try to go out there and enjoy the moment. Also, my coaches are really supportive and give good advice.”
SH: How do you channel all of your emotions?
AR: I’m pretty used to it. I’ve competed like five or six times this year alone. And, most of them were like a week apart from each other. It’s just less nerve wracking because you get used to it.
SH: Obviously, whatever it may look like for me watching, those skills take what, hours of repetition followed by more hours of repetition? I would imagine at some point, it becomes far more mental than physical – Or is it always mental?
AR: I don’t think people realize how mental gymnastics is. It’s more of a mental thing than a physical thing because when you are in the gym for seven hours, by the fifth or sixth hour your mind is what keeps your body going. Your body is telling you to stop.
SH: At 18-years-old you are the most experienced member of the Olympic Team. As the eldest and the one with the most experience, do you feel yourself falling into a team leadership role?
AR: I would hope. I would love to be considered the team leader. I am the oldest and I do have the most experience. But, in other years, I was the youngest one. It’s really special to see how things have changed over the years, because less than a year ago I was the youngest. It would be a huge honor to be considered the team leader, but we’re all best friends and we all work together.
SH: I’d like to get back to trials for a minute and talk about a few moments you and Nastia [Liukin] shared. After what may have been her final routine as a competitive gymnast, her beam routine, you were the first to go over and hug her – And you held onto her for quite a bit talking to her. What did you say to her?
AR: It was one of those moments where you didn’t have to say anything. We’re really good friends. We text and talk all of the time. I can go to her for anything. She was so helpful this year to me, having been at the Olympics and winning at them. She’s been really supportive. It was more of a “just being there” kind of moment for her than actually saying anything. It was a special bond between us.
SH: And, to continue on with the last question, just as competition was ending and the committee was leaving the floor to make their decision, she went over to you, hugged you, and spoke into your ear a bit. What advice or words did she offer you?
AR: I was nervous after the competition because everyone did so well and I didn’t know if I’d be on the team. I’m not the kind of person that thinks I’m on every team. So, I was just nervous. She said that she was so proud of me and that I was definitely going to make the team. I just look up to her so much, so it meant a lot to me.
SH: This past year, you were part of the team that claimed a gold medal at Worlds in Tokyo. You know the winning feeling – How badly do you want that winning feeling again?
AR: We definitely want it again. Everyone wants the gold medal. The last team to win gold was ‘96. The ‘04 and ‘08 teams were so close. I think we just have to stay calm and enjoy it. We have so much fun competing together. If we work hard every day we can come out on top.
SH: Would you say that you are carrying the winning feeling from Worlds around with you as a reminder of what it feels like, and as a way of fueling you going into London?
AR: Yea, I mean right now I’m thinking about that feeling of being named to the team, because that moment is most fresh in my mind. I’d love to have those happy tears again in London.
SH: When I think about your sport, the word unforgiving comes to mind. So much is asked of you as a gymnast and so much judgement is returned. There’s no way to gain, only to get points deducted. The best you can hope for is to stay at even. I can’t really verbalize how much respect I have for what you do, how you do it, and how you deal with all of the pressure. So, how do you deal with the unforgiving nature of the sport?
AR: The coaches always expect the best of me and want me to do my best. It’s so hard, but they also remind me that they want me to do very well. It’s hard everyday to be criticized as much as we are, but it makes me a stronger competitor and person. I want to do so well for my country, so I use that as motivation as well.
SH: Let’s talk about London. Do you know what events you’ll be doing over there?
AR: We don’t know yet. Almost everyone does the all-around. Hopefully, I’ll be able to do the all-around.
SH: Throughout your career, did the accomplishment of participating in the Olympic Games always seem attainable to you?
AR: I think that when I was younger I thought I would be able to do it. But, after this year came and I put in all the hard work in the gym I realized I didn’t want to be left off of the team, standing in the other room crying.
SH: Many people can call themselves athletes; far fewer can call themselves Olympians. What does it mean to be an Olympian?
AR: It means everything to me. All that hard work and dedication. I can’t wait. I think about it every single day.
*Marta Karolyi is the US National Gymnastics team coordinator and head of the Olympic Team selection committee.*
We will continue our 2012 Team USA / London Olympics Interview Series all month leading up to the start of the Games. Find all the interviews and more Team USA coverage on the DoubleGSports.com Team USA page.