Raisman steps into limelight after Olympic stunner

Aly Raisman tried to be OK with it, tried to smile, say all the

right things and be the good teammate that’s made her easily the

most reliable American gymnast over the last three years.

The 18-year-old U.S. Olympic team captain never complained when

the cameras focused on world champion and good friend Jordyn

Wieber. She didn’t pout when Gabby Douglas’ electric smile made the

shadow Raisman spent so much time in even bigger.

Instead, Raisman did what she’s always done. She kept working.

More importantly, she kept believing.

And with one typically steady floor routine during Olympic team

qualifying on Sunday, the sidekick became the star.

Raisman’s score of 15.325 on floor gave her a total of 60.391,

slipping past Douglas for the top performance by an American and

making best friend Wieber the odd girl out of Thursday’s individual

all-around final.

”Aly’s success today just proves that hard work pays off,”

U.S. coach Martha Karolyi said. ”She’s one of the most serious and

hardest-working girls in training. So finally it came true, and she

was able to perform at the (highest) level.”

The result sent shockwaves through the O2 Arena and the U.S.

team, and left Raisman and Wieber in tears, for entirely different

reasons.

The rules allow only two gymnasts per country to make the

all-around finals, and for months it seemed Douglas and Wieber were

on course to repeat the duel Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin staged

in Beijing four years ago.

Douglas did the cover of Time magazine. Wieber graced the front

of US Weekly. When the entire team got together for a Sports

Illustrated photo shoot, it featured Douglas in the middle flanked

by Wieber and a seemingly ”thrilled to be here” Raisman.

Sure, Raisman happily accepted the mantle of captain as the

team’s oldest and most experienced gymnast, but she was also the

security blanket. Though Raisman’s metronome-like consistency

earned Karoyli’s respect and admiration, the soft-spoken kid from

Needham, Mass., lacks Douglas’ flash and Wieber’s tenacity.

In a sport that embraces grace, Raisman performs with the kind

of grit that would make her fit right in with her beloved Boston

Bruins. Her beam routines are rock solid, the sound of her feet

hitting the four-inch-wide wood echoing through the gym. Her floor

sets are practical, not progressive.

It’s a style that is perfect for team competition but not always

designed to stand out, even as Raisman became the bedrock of a U.S.

team expected to win gold for the first time since 1996.

Did the lack of attention get to her? How could it not? She’s

got three world championship medals but spent most of her career as

an afterthought.

”It bothers you sometimes,” said Mihai Brestayn, Raisman’s

coach. ”I tried to avoid that. I tried to protect her. But they

have feelings like everybody else.”

Raisman insists she had no problem being out of the limelight.

Wieber’s a champion. Douglas is a natural who is perhaps the most

talented gymnast of her generation.

”I was OK with being under the radar because I just felt more

calm going into this,” Raisman said. ”I didn’t feel the pressure.

I just wanted to do it more for myself and my coaches because we’ve

been working so hard together. I really felt real confident that I

could get my goal.”

And to be honest, when it came down to it, Raisman could never

quite seize the moment. The only meets she won over the last three

years were ones Douglas and Wieber either skipped or used as

tune-ups.

Yeah, she took the all-around at the U.S. Classic in Chicago in

May, but Douglas opted not to vault, and Wieber worked only on

uneven bars and balance beam.

Raisman was third at nationals in June and third again at trials

a month ago and appeared to be on the verge of getting passed by

newcomers like Kyla Ross and Elizabeth Price. The top of the podium

seemed to be getting further out of reach.

Until, suddenly, it wasn’t.

It didn’t look like Raisman was in the middle of the ”meet of

her life,” as U.S. assistant coach John Geddert put it through two

rotations. Her vault was the lowest of the four Americans. Her bars

score too.

Raisman found her footing on beam – she always does – with a

15.1. Still, it looked as if she would be out of the all-around mix

until Douglas and Wieber faltered on floor, both taking steps out

of bounds.

No such mistakes from Raisman. After years of playing second or

third fiddle, she responded with typical relentlessness. In the

span of 75 nearly flawless seconds, Raisman proved she

belonged.

She placed her hands over her mouth in wonder when she realized

what happened, the moment the girl next door became a force to be

reckoned with.

”This is what we’ve been working toward,” Brestayn said.

”This is what she deserves.”