Aly Raisman looks to continue strong legacy of American gymnastics

Published On July 19, 2012 | By Tanya Ray Fox

“She is the smartest young gymnast I have ever seen.”

International and U.S. Hall of Fame coach Bela Karolyi said this of local London-bound Olympian Aly Raisman.

Not only is Bela the husband of current national team coach Marta Karolyi, he also happens to be the godfather of gymnastics in the United States. The Karolyis might be the greatest coaching tandem in the history of the Olympics, and 18 year-old Raisman from Needham, MA is one of the smartest athletes and composed competitors they have ever seen.

After being part of the group that won team gold at the World Championships in Tokyo last November, Raisman is now one-fifth of a very similarly assembled group that is favored to win the gold in London. Now coached by Mihai Brestyan at Brestyan’s gym in Burlington, Raisman has officially moved from protégé to successor of teammate and former Olympian Alicia Sacramone. And while she always seems to remain cool, calm and collected, the opportunity to become an Olympic legend is rooted in a four-decade narrative that all began with the Barolyis.

It is hard to imagine the Summer Olympics without the majesty and tradition of women’s gymnastics. It may be the only mainstream sport dominated by women. In a male-dominated world of sports, there’s something special and unbelievable about the perfect amalgamation of poise, power, speed and discipline that the women achieve.

The popularity of women’s gymnastics in the U.S. soared to new heights in the mid 1980’s and 1990’s, starting when Bela Karolyi coached Mary Lou Retton to the first All-Around title to be won by a woman outside of Eastern Europe. Before he defected to the U.S, he also coached Nadia Comaneci in the 1976 Montreal games to the first perfect score ever awarded to a woman in the Olympics. He went on to lead the 1984 and 1992 U.S. teams to their first team medals, silver and bronze respectively, before heading the legendary Magnificent Seven who finally captured the coveted team gold in Atlanta in 1996.

Prior to the Atlanta games, Russia (formerly the Soviet Union and the Unified Team) was unbeatable. The Russian government cultivated the characteristics of ultimate athletes from the time children were able to walk. The government program bred unbeatable machines of technique, power, grace and consistency. The dedication paid off, as the Russians won every team all-around gold since the inception of the women’s vault/beam/bars/floor format in 1952 (excepting the boycotted ’84 games, won by Romania).

When, in 1996, those seven American athletes captured the world’s attention in Atlanta by toppling the 44-year reign of the Russians, they paved the way for every young woman to finally to finally believe they could stand atop the podium as the best female gymnasts in the world.

In 1996, when Kerri Strug – performing with third degree lateral sprain and tendon damage in her ankle – stuck her second vault to seal the gold medal for the Americans, it cemented one of the most iconic moments in American sports history. It was and still remains an indelible moment not just because of the physical endurance it took, but because the world was watching as a 4-foot-8, 18-year-old woman showed as much competitiveness, bravery and mental toughness as any athlete on the globe.

Now, as Raisman and her teammates prepare for their trip to London this week, they think of those moments they have grown up watching. They learn from a coach who has worked with some of the greatest athletes of all time. They will walk in the Olympic ceremonies as heroes to millions of young girls and women all over the world.

Perhaps our hometown hero will have her own gold medal moment. Perhaps she won’t. But oh, how incredible it will be to watch.

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