Tuesday July 31st, 2012

LONDON -- Aly Raisman has fought back tears before. You don't become an elite gymnast without shedding a few along the way. But never before had she had to hold it together, afraid she might burst into tears of unencumbered joy. After nailing her final tumbling pass on the floor Tuesday afternoon, though, the emotions were written all over her face, even before she hit her final dismount pose. She put a hand up to her mouth and the tears began welling. Having seen the Russian team falter on the floor before teammates Gabby Douglas and Jordyn Wieber nailed their exercises, she had to know a relatively clean routine would seal gold for the U.S.

"I was just hoping that we had won," she said. "I hadn't been keeping track of the scores, but I was just so proud of all these girls.... I just wanted to finish up on a strong note for Team USA."

In a whirlwind two days, the 18-year-old native of Needham, Mass., has catapulted herself into the spotlight in London, earning the top U.S. score in qualification Sunday and then clinching the team win with the day's best floor routine Tuesday. The team win capped off a couple days of mixed emotions for her, though. Her strong performance on Sunday, coupled with Douglas' rise in the all-around in recent weeks, meant Wieber, her friend and roommate here in London, would not qualify for the all-around because of the rule that only two gymnasts can represent their country in the individual event.

But there were no mixed emotions Tuesday. With a gold medal around her neck and surrounded by her teammates on the podium at North Greenwich Arena, Raisman had achieved something she has spent almost a lifetime dreaming about. Soon after she could walk, Raisman could tumble. Her mother, Lynn, took her to a Mommy and Me gymnastics class when Aly was just 18 months old. Some little girls watch their favorite movie day after day, learning lines to a point where they can recite entire scenes verbatim. Growing up, Raisman chose to relive two weeks in 1996 daily. For years, she'd pop in an old VHS tape and watch the Olympic gymnastics competition in Atlanta. She marveled at the Magnificent Seven and all-around champion Lilia Podkopayeva of the Ukraine. She says she watched the tape so many times that she could recite Podkopayeva's floor routine by memory at one point.

On Thursday, she will compete in the all-around, with hopes of realizing a dream that seemed far off just a few months ago. Last March, when she finished two-tenths of a point behind Wieber, Raisman was genuinely ecstatic. "It's the closest I've ever gotten to [Jordyn]," she said, beaming. But after Douglas placed second at nationals and then won Olympic Trials, it seemed likely that Raisman might be the odd girl out in London. Instead, she'll be in the spotlight Thursday, though she may have to share it with her parents. NBC cameras captured Lynn and her husband, Ricky, watching Aly's uneven bar routine Sunday afternoon. Fidgeting in their seats and as nervous and squeamish as a seated pair could possibly be, the couple became the viral hit of the first days of the Games. That video will probably live on the Internet for a long time.

The whereabouts of the old VHS tape, on the other hand, are unknown. It may be buried somewhere in a box of mementos in the Raismans' attic; it may have even found its way into the trash at some point over the years. No one quite knows where it's gone. But at this point, the tape itself wouldn't matter very much. It's probably so worn from daily playbacks that black bands would infiltrate the screen, so worn that the picture would probably stretch and the audio jump, interrupting Shannon Miller's beam exercise or maybe even Kerri Strug's infamous vault. It's not so much about the tape as what it came to mean to a young Raisman.

Sixteen years after the U.S. last captured gold in women's gymnastics, it might be these Fabulous Five, led by team captain Raisman, who inspire a new generation. Here's hoping that DVRs around America are recording.

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