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Gymnast's Journey: Toddler Tumbler To Golden Girl

Aly Raisman practices on the balance beam at the 2012 American Cup at Madison Square Garden in New York. She placed second in the all-around portion of the event.
Timothy A. Clary
AFP/Getty Images
Aly Raisman practices on the balance beam at the 2012 American Cup at Madison Square Garden in New York. She placed second in the all-around portion of the event.

Aly Raisman started gymnastics like millions of other children — in a toddler tumbling class. Now 17, the Massachusetts athlete is considered one of the best tumblers in the world. And she's on track to make the 2012 U.S. Olympic gymnastics team.

As a gymnast, Raisman sets herself apart with her power moves. When she competed at the 2012 American Cup, an NBC TV commentator said of one tumbling pass: "Most people in the world would have said that this pass is not possible."

In her tumbling routine at that competition, Raisman ran across the floor into a series of aerial somersaults that ended with a "punch layout." For the maneuver, she flipped over, fully extended, like a pancake being flipped. It's almost like she's floating.

If she nails that routine at the Olympic trials at the end of June, Raisman will have a very good chance of taking one of the five spots on the women's U.S. gymnastics team.

"I'm excited. I'm anxious. And I'm just kind of ready for it to happen," Raisman says. "I feel like I've been waiting my whole life for it. So I just kind of want it to come now."

Her mother, Lynn Raisman, says that as the oldest of four children, Aly has shown drive and determination in everything she does.

"Gymnastics has really taken a priority in her life for a really long time, and that comes from her," Lynn says. "Because if it didn't, I think she would have quit a long time ago."

Raisman was only 2 years old in 1996, when the U.S. women's gymnastics team last took Olympic gold. When she set her sights on competing in the Olympics, her mother found an old VCR tape of that golden team and gave it to her.

"In my room, I would replay it day after day after day," Raisman says. "And I was literally obsessed with it. I could memorize all the scores and tell you who was going next, and all that stuff. I was so inspired by it."

Until last year, Raisman went to Needham High School and maintained a rigorous training schedule. Now she's completing her senior year online. On most days, she spends seven hours at the gym. She says the key to tumbling is conditioning, not just lifting weights.

"Actually I have to climb the rope without legs, with 10-pound weights on," she says — adding with a laugh, "so it's very, very hard."

As a result of that work, her upper body seems very powerful — something she confirms.

"I look really strong, definitely compared to normal girls," Raisman says. "I'm proud of it, I guess, because it's a lot of hard work to get that, and it doesn't just come overnight."

Raisman competes in the floor exercise, uneven bars, vault and balance beam.

Training recently at a gym in a Boston suburb, she practices her dismount from the balance beam. Her coach, Mihai Brestyan, stands a good distance away, quietly giving pointers.

"OK, this was a good one," he says. "Stay with this one, that's it."

Brestyan, who's Romanian, says Raisman is an Olympic-caliber athlete because she is self-critical.

"To be successful, you cannot be all the time pleased with yourself — you need to be critical," he says. "Because if today you think, 'Oh, I am good enough,' tomorrow, someone else [is] better than you."

Raisman doesn't want anyone to be better than her. She wants a gold medal. But like any teenager, she's not entirely focused on the gold. She's also thinking about the prom.

"My prom dress is brown," she says. "And it's really different, because most people don't wear brown to prom. It's almost like a cap sleeve, with jewels. And it has a low V-neck, but it's very simple, and elegant and sophisticated. So I'm really excited to wear it."

Raisman says she wants to eventually go to college and study fashion. But right now, she's focused on sticking a spot on the U.S. Olympic gymnastics team.

Copyright 2012 WBUR

Monica Brady-Myerov