(Eds: Corrects to floor exercise in 8th paragraph. With AP Photos.)By NANCY ARMOURAP National Writer
There is one sure way to get Martha Karolyi to smile these days.
Ask her about Aly Raisman.
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Raisman may not have Jordyn Wieber’s glittering resume or Gabby Douglas’ star power. But the 18-year-old from Needham, Mass., is as consistent as a metronome, a quality Karolyi values every bit as much as tough tricks and pretty lines. Particularly in an Olympic year.
”She is just so solid,” said Karolyi, the national team coordinator. ”She goes out there and doesn’t act like she’s bothered by anything. She knows she’s trained, she knows she’s ready and she doesn’t put any extra pressure on herself.”
The team for the London Games won’t be announced until July 1, following the Olympic trials in San Jose, Calif. But Raisman, along with Wieber and Douglas, is considered a near-lock. She finished third at the U.S. gymnastics championships Sunday, and won the titles on both balance beam and floor exercise.
”Last night, before falling asleep, I was a little bit anxious,” Raisman said. ”I just want the Olympic trials to be here. It’s what I’ve been working for my whole life.”
Wieber and Douglas tend to dominate the conversation when it comes to the American women. Wieber is the reigning world champion, and she just won her second U.S. title. Douglas has an uneven bars routine that would make an acrobat sweat – Karolyi’s nickname for her is ”Flying Squirrel” – and her bright, bubbly personality is similar to that of her old gym mate, Shawn Johnson.
But under the Olympic scoring system, where three gymnasts compete on each event in the finals and all three scores count, no country can win a gold medal without a solid third option. Raisman is better than that, in many respects. She, not Wieber or Douglas, was the only gymnast to win two individual titles Sunday. She was the bronze medalist on floor at last year’s world championships, and finished fourth in the all-around. Her vault and routines on balance beam and floor exercise are as difficult as anyone’s in the world.
”I don’t think she necessarily gets enough credit for how well she competes,” said Beijing Olympic captain Alicia Sacramone, who trains with Raisman. ”At the last two world championships, I don’t think she’s made any mistakes. She’s the backbone. If you want her to go and do something, do a solid routine, she’s going to do it. … She’s not necessarily as flashy as Jordyn or Gabby, and that’s why people look past her. I think she deserves a little bit more credit.”
Take her floor routine, done to ”Hava Nagila.” The crowd starts clapping as soon as it hears the opening notes of her music, and the arena takes on the same fun, festive atmosphere as when the partygoers dance the Hora at a wedding.
What people don’t realize, however, is how ridiculously hard the routine is. Those tumbling passes that she does with such nonchalance are lung-busters, and her breezy dance steps took hours to perfect.
”Everyone takes for granted that floor routine, but it’s so crazy. She had to work her butt off,” Sacramone said. ”She blows my mind. I train with her every day and I couldn’t do the things she does.”
And this from someone who’s a former world champion on floor.
What Raisman does off the floor is just as big. When Sacramone blew out her Achilles two days before the world championships last fall, it was Raisman who stepped up to fill the void. She was the ”veteran,” having been to all of one world championships before, but she kept the rest of the Americans loose and calm as they cruised to the gold medal, only the third team title for the U.S.
”I’m the oldest of all my siblings, so it just kind of came naturally,” said Raisman, who has a brother and two sisters. ”I didn’t really think of it as being the team leader, I just wanted to help the others out.”
By being more dependable than flashy, Raisman may not become the next Mary Lou or win any popularity contests.
But there is only one vote that matters, and Raisman definitely has it.
”I really love to have this kind of gymnast,” Karolyi said. ”She gives her heart.”