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How Competing for Myself Changed Everything
By Aly Raisman
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Discover Aly Raisman’s inspiring story of dedication, perseverance, and learning to think positive even in the toughest times on her path to gold medal success in two Olympic Games–and beyond.
Aly Raisman first stepped onto a gymnastics mat as a toddler in a “mommy & me” gymnastics class. No one could have predicted then that sixteen years later, she’d be standing on an Olympic podium, having achieved her dreams.
Aly’s road to success was full of hard work, perseverance, and victories, but not without its hardships. Aly faced many obstacles, from naysayers who said she’d never make it in gymnastics to classmates who shamed her for her athletic body to a devastating betrayal of trust. Through it all, Aly surrounded herself with supportive family, friends, and teammates and found the inner strength to remain positive and believe in herself. Now, in her own words, Aly shows what it takes to be a champion on and off the floor, and takes readers on a behind-the-scenes journey before, during, and after her remarkable achievements in two Olympic Games–through her highest highs, lowest lows, and all the moments in between.
Honest and heartfelt, frank and funny, Aly’s story is enhanced with never-before-published photos, excerpts from the personal journals she’s kept since childhood that chronicle memorable moments with her teammates, and hard-won advice for readers striving to rise above challenges, learn to love themselves, and make their own dreams come true.
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
I’m sitting on the floor of the airy warm-up gym in the Rio Olympic Arena and fiddling with the fraying white rug beneath my feet, grateful for a distraction. The countdown to the 2016 Olympic Games is officially over, but these final minutes of waiting before the women’s gymnastics competition begins are killing me.
Out of the corner of my eye, I cast a glance at my teammates. Like me, they’re staring off into space, each in her own little world. Every now and then we come back to earth for a second, make eye contact, and give one another a little smile of encouragement. We don’t exchange words. After weeks of sharing arduous training sessions, ice-cold recovery sessions, and laughter-filled leotard fittings, we’ve become so close that we don’t have to.
The sounds of coaches giving last-minute corrections and advice in several languages float across the gym. I couldn’t help thinking that our own warm-up could have gone better. Despite all our careful preparation, there had been errors on bars, falls off the beam, and out-of-bounds landings on floor—all the classic pre-competition jitters. Even national team coordinator Martha Karolyi, usually so full of energy, had seemed a little quiet.
The announcer’s booming voice breaks into my reverie. “Attention, gymnasts: Please make your way to the hallway to prepare for competition.” We’ve heard these words at practically every meet since we were children, but this time they convey a reality that is thrilling and utterly terrifying at the same time. This is it. All the work I’ve put in all those years, all those repetitions, all those sit-ups and pull-ups, all that chalk and tape—all that will be tested for the next several days, starting right now.
As usual, Martha wastes no time. “Okay, girls, let’s do this!” she says, her voice brisk and commanding. “We are prepared. Just like practice.” We stand up and fall into line, just like at the beginning and end of each training session. One by one, she gives each of us a nod of approval, projecting reassurance and calm. Watching her, I feel my breathing start to return to normal. If Martha believes we can do it, we can do it. We are ready.
It’s cold in the dimly lit hallway that connects the warm-up gym to the arena. We line up shortest to tallest: Simone Biles. Laurie Hernandez. Madison Kocian. Gabby Douglas. Me. Barefoot in our patriotic leotards, we wait for our cue. Some of the gymnasts from other countries have cupped their hands to their mouths and are blowing warm air into the palms of their hands. The minutes pass slowly, each one like an hour. I feel like I need to keep moving, do anything to make the time go by more quickly, so I run in place.
Without warning, the wave of confidence I’ve been riding evaporates and the nerves come rushing back in. My stomach turns and I begin to gag, struggling to regain my calm. I focus on taking deep, slow breaths, even though my heart is pounding and my throat feels like it’s closing up. I can’t believe this moment is finally here. All my hard work will be put to the test.
Pull yourself together, I tell myself. Remember that you’ve worked so, so hard—you deserve to compete well. I close my eyes and repeat this over and over in my head as I breathe in slow, deep breaths.
I peer around the dark tunnel in search of Mihai, my coach since I was ten. One of the advantages of having known each other so long is that we can communicate without using words. In this moment, my face tells him I need to see reassurance in his eyes, I need his confidence. Mihai smiles at me. I exhale.
Next, I look to Martha. She catches my eye and nods her head. Right now, her eyes say, You can do it, Aly. Everything will be okay.
In the arena, the announcer is talking. Suddenly, like a fuzzy radio signal coming sharply into focus, we hear:
“The United States of America!”
As we begin moving forward, there’s a loud roar from the thousands of fans in the stands as they anticipate the entrance of the reigning Olympic team champions. It’s real now. The last thing that registers as we walk out of the darkness is Martha’s voice. She’s yelling in her strong Romanian accent, “Let’s go, girls. It will be a good one!”
Yes, it will. As I step into the cheerful green arena with its shiny new equipment and white Olympic rings everywhere, I hide my nerves. With my head held high and a genuine smile spreading from ear to ear, I give myself a moment to take it all in. To savor the feeling of a dream as it comes true. I did it. I am one of the five: The Final Five, representing the United States of America on the Olympic stage.
As we make our way toward the floor exercise, I allow myself to embrace the journey I’ve taken. I picture another Aly, age eight, sitting on my living room floor a foot away from the TV, watching a different team enter a different arena for their own Olympic moment. Seeing the US women’s team march in to compete at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta filled me with a passion for gymnastics that would never fade. My smile grows wider, thinking of some eight-year-old out there, who might be watching us right now with a dream growing in their mind. Maybe that kid will know, just like I did, that they will be out here someday.
From eight years old on, I had dreamed of nothing but this. Of course, I had no idea how improbable that dream was. I had no idea how many years of my life I would dedicate to it, or how hard it would be to get there—and then to get there a second time.
In those days, the only thing on my mind was how much I loved gymnastics and how badly I wanted to be one of those women, marching into the arena in an American flag leotard, radiating confidence and ready to compete for Team USA.
The best thing about being a kid with a dream is that it never occurs to you that it might not be possible. As I walk into the Rio Olympic Arena fourteen years later, just for a second, I become that eight-year-old again.
In this moment, no dream is too big.
Chills of anticipation raced up my spine. Staring at the TV, I bounced up and down on the couch, so excited I could hardly sit still. No matter how many times I watched the tape, it felt like I was seeing it for the first time.
The crowd inside the Georgia Dome was on their feet and already making a deafening amount of noise as the seven American women filed into the arena to begin the 1996 Olympic gymnastics women’s team final.
The excitement that greeted the US women’s gymnastics team as they marched briskly toward the uneven bars was the most captivating thing I had ever seen. The air in the arena was so supercharged with electricity that I could feel it in my own living room, through the screen, six years after the fact.
My journey to Rio really began with those Olympic Games. I was only two years old on that warm July evening in 1996 when the Magnificent Seven (as they came to be known) kicked off a competition that concluded with one of the most dramatic endings in sports history.
I wasn’t watching that night, but my grandfather was. He knew that my mom, a former high school gymnast, would be interested in seeing the event, so he taped it for her. When he gave her the tape a few days later, my busy mom thanked him, then laid the tape aside and promptly forgot about it.
She unearthed it on a quiet afternoon at home six years later. I can still see her standing by the VCR in our living room in Newton, Massachusetts, with its dark green leather couch and green and gold carpet.
The smell of chicken roasting in the kitchen wafted into the room. I was attempting to keep an eye on my two-year-old sister, Chloe, who toddled around while my two-month-old sister, Madison, slept in her portable crib nearby.
As we waited for my dad to get home from picking up my brother, Brett, from hockey practice, Mom popped the tape into the VCR and stood back with an air of satisfaction.
“I was going through some old tapes and came across this. I think you’ll like it, Aly,” she said with a knowing smile as she fiddled with the remote.
Watching TV with my mom was our special time together, and I cherished it. Raising four young children didn’t leave a lot of time for kicking back, but whenever she wasn’t too busy, we would sit down on the couch and pick out a tape to watch.
Our choice usually involved our favorite sport—you guessed it: gymnastics. Gymnastics wasn’t broadcast as often as the endless stream of football and basketball games, but on the rare occasions gymnastics competitions were televised, we made sure to tape them. I would watch those tapes over and over until I knew all the routines by heart.
My mom would eventually get tired of yet another screening of a US Championships or an invitational, but I couldn’t get enough. When I wasn’t doing homework or at gymnastics practice, I was parked in front of the TV, watching one of those tapes.
One day I want to be just like them, I thought, enchanted by the figures flying across the screen. I had already decided that I would be a gymnast when I grew up. Well, either that or a pop star, like Britney Spears, my favorite singer. That sounded good, too.
As they lined up, the faces of the seven US team members—Amanda Borden, Amy Chow, Dominique Dawes, Shannon Miller, Dominique Moceanu, Jaycie Phelps, and Kerri Strug—projected concentration, confidence, and strength. In their American flag leotards, they were my Supergirls. All they were missing were capes.
The American women had never won an Olympic team gold medal, and in Atlanta, they were considered underdogs to the powerhouse Russian and Romanian teams, who were expected to battle it out for gold. Though the United States managed to finish second in the qualifying rounds, Russia and Romania were still favored to finish ahead of the United States in the final. But on that magical night, lifted by the support of the home crowd and their belief in themselves, their sterling performances surpassed all expectations.
On the unpredictable uneven bars and precarious balance beam, they were confident and flying high. One near perfect routine followed the next. It seemed like nothing could stop them.
By the time the final event rolled around, the Olympic team gold medal was within reach. It all came down to Kerri Strug—if she landed one of her two vaults, the Americans would be the Olympic champions for the first time ever.
On her first attempt, the unthinkable happened: Kerri landed short, and fell to the ground. When she stood up and walked back down the runway, she was limping badly. But she had to do one good vault to clinch gold for the team (at the time, gymnasts were allowed to count the best score out of two vaults. Today, in elite competition, gymnasts only perform one vault).
Her coach, Bela Karolyi, urged her on from the sidelines. “You can do it, Kerri!” he cried.
Blocking out the pain, she raced down the vault runway and launched herself into the air. She landed well this time, but immediately raised her left leg in pain. She had to hop sideways to salute the judges, signaling the end of her routine. Then she collapsed onto the mat.
It could not have been more dramatic. Seeing them standing on that medal podium, hands over their hearts as the US flag was raised over the arena, filled me with eagerness. I was certain I wanted to be standing in their shoes—or more accurately, their leotards—one day.
The US team’s victory wasn’t the only moment that had me mesmerized. Of all the events—vault, uneven bars, balance beam, and floor exercise—floor was the one that captivated me the most. It was the only event where gymnasts got to perform to music, allowing spectators a glimpse of their different personalities and styles.
One gymnast stood out from all the others. Her name was Liliya Podkopaeva, and at first glance you would have thought she was a ballerina. In her dark green velvet leotard with its delicate row of rhinestones edging the neckline and with her brown hair swept into a neat bun, the seventeen-year-old Ukrainian carried herself like she was taking the stage in a grand theater.
She flew across the equipment, flipping, leaping, twirling, and making it all look effortless. Her floor routine was sheer magic. Heels tucked squarely into a corner of the mat, she began by sweeping her arms over her head in a graceful arc before rising high up on her toes and taking off. Liliya’s masterful performances on all events in Atlanta earned her the Olympic all-around gold medal, given to the gymnast with the highest total score for all four events. In addition to all-around, Liliya won floor gold. I was in awe of her tumbling passes, which were unique and very difficult.
From my tapes and lessons at Exxcel Gymnastics in Newton, Massachusetts, I already knew a few things about the sport. I knew, for example, that there were different kinds of competitions at the Olympics and other major meets, including a team competition, the individual all-around (which determined the best overall gymnast), and individual event finals (won by the best on each event). I didn’t yet have a complete grasp of how a gymnast wound up at the Olympics, but I knew that was where I dreamed of being.
As I watched the Magnificent Seven stand atop the Olympic medal podium and listened to the national anthem, I felt pride well up inside of me.
The 1996 tape was my favorite. I’d watch it over and over, taking in every little detail. I was studying it, trying to soak up the gymnasts’ confidence, their attitudes, and the way they moved. No matter how many times I watched it, my heart pounded like I was seeing everything for the first time.
When short “fluff” segments showed the top gymnasts training in their own countries, I discovered that there was more to admire about them than their gymnastics. Liliya, for instance, was shown to spend her only day off going to watch ballet with her coaches to study new techniques—she lived and breathed gymnastics. Some of the best gymnasts had overcome great hardships to realize their Olympic dreams. Some trained in poor conditions, with little medical support if they got sick or hurt. Some were already helping to support their families, even though they were still teenagers. Their stories inspired me, but I didn’t yet truly understand how much work and how many tough days were behind those medals and smiles. What I saw were strong, confident young women—and I wanted to be just like them.
From that day on I was absolutely convinced that I would one day go to the Olympics, too. I had it all planned out: My teammates and I would win the team gold, like the Magnificent Seven had, and then I would win the floor gold, like Liliya.
What would it be like, I wondered, to compete at the Olympics in a beautiful red, white, and blue leotard, to wave victoriously to the cheering crowd with my teammates? What would it be like to stand on a medal podium, feeling the weight of a gold medal around my neck and knowing that I was the best in the world at something? These thoughts would propel me to my feet, and I would dance around the living room on my toes, imitating Liliya’s floor choreography.
“Aly, dinner’s ready!” my mom would call from the kitchen.
“I’m practicing, Mom, just a few more minutes!” I’d plead, my eyes glued to the screen.
Soon I realized that if I grew up to be an Olympic gymnast, I might become famous! That meant people would want my autograph. I had better practice my signature, I figured. Soon I was signing my name to everything I could get my hands on… including the living room wall with a permanent marker.
For some reason my parents were less than thrilled—even after I explained that I had just been practicing.
The name on my birth certificate, issued May 25, 1994, reads Alexandra Rose Raisman, but for the first few years of my life everyone called me Lexie. Until I was five, I thought my given name actually was Lexie. When I learned the truth, I was indignant that people had been calling me the wrong name all those years. “Please call me Alexandra. It’s my real name!” I begged my parents, my grandparents, and everyone else.
Though I’ve always adored my regal first name, I can admit now that “Alexandra” was a mouthful for other five-year-olds. In first grade, I met a girl named Allison, whom everyone called Ali. We became inseparable and wanted to match in every way, right down to our first names. Since she was “Ali with an i,” I became “Aly with a y.”
It was as “Aly Raisman” that I trained at Exxcel Gymnastics in Newton, Massachusetts.
It’s hard to say exactly where I got my Olympic athletic genes. My dad, Rick, a former hockey and baseball player, likes to joke that it’s all him. There’s no doubt where I got my love for the sport, though: That comes from my mom, Lynn, who did gymnastics as a child and later competed on her high school team.
It was Mom’s idea to enroll in a “Mommy and Me” class at a local gymnastics club near our house in Newton when I was just eighteen months old.
In the beginning, it was just a fun activity for my mom to do with an energetic toddler who loved playing in the gym. My parents also thought I was quite muscular for a two-year-old. After the Mommy and Me class ended, Mom signed me up for a toddlers-only class, then a thirty-minute beginner class.
For an on-the-go kid like me, a gymnastics gym was a paradise. With its colorful blocks to climb on, springy trampolines to bounce on, and a pit filled with soft foam blocks to dive into, a gym is the coolest playhouse any young child can imagine.
When I was five, an instructor approached my mom about having me do a pre-team tryout. Mom was hesitant at first. It seemed strange to her, bringing such a young child to a tryout for a team. She worried that I was too young for the stress of competition, but the instructor talked her into it. They explained the tryout would be with a different coach, one who would be able to measure my potential.
When we arrived on the day of the tryout, I was the youngest child there—all the other kids were seven or eight. Mom told me it was just another lesson. She didn’t want me to know that it was a tryout so that I wouldn’t be disappointed if things didn’t work out. Since even then I couldn’t get enough of the gym, I galloped off happily and tried to do whatever they asked.
At the end of the tryout, the coach came over to my mother. “I’m sorry,” she said apologetically. “But Aly’s not physically strong enough to be on the pre-team.”
Mom hadn’t felt confident about bringing me in the first place, and she was embarrassed that this coach might have thought she was a pushy stage mother for bringing her five-year-old to a tryout, but she shrugged it off. Climbing some sort of team ladder didn’t matter in the least to her. I obviously adored gymnastics and was happy at the gym, and that was the most important thing.
As for me, I remained oblivious that there had been a tryout and that I’d been rejected. I continued with a weekly hour-long class, happily swinging on the bars, picking my way across the balance beam, and zooming around on the bouncy floor mat.
And that, Mom figured, would be that.
On weekends, my family would often get together at my mother’s parents’ house. My grandfather Richard’s bulky desktop Apple computer was an object of fascination to me and my younger brother, Brett. (My first word, “apple,” was apparently a reference to the computer, not the fruit.) At each visit, Brett and I would run through the house, or head next door to greet Grandma and Grandpa’s neighbor, who we called the “Cookie Lady” because she always had delicious cookies for us each time we rang the bell, just as she had for our mother when she was our age.
Dad often brought his video camera on family outings. It was clear to everyone when he would begin to film; as soon as the camera turned on, I perked up. I loved being the center of attention. Somehow I got the idea that if I stated the date that I would be the first to be filmed each time the recorder came on. Usually after that I’d belt out a song, most often by Britney Spears or Christina Aguilera. Brett, meanwhile, would execute his Power Rangers dance and then take a break to search for his favorite snack, a bagel with cream cheese.
I was always in motion. Whatever surface there was, I was jumping on it! One of my favorite places to jump was on my parents’ bed. Their mattress was so bouncy, it was almost as good as the trampoline at the gym. I vividly remember hopping up and down on it excitedly one day in May 2000 as we waited for my mom to arrive home from a special Florida trip. I was getting a new sister!
Mom and Dad always wanted a big family, but after Brett was born in 1996, Mom was advised against another pregnancy. My parents had room in their hearts for more children, so they decided to adopt. One day my parents got a call and left for Florida for Chloe’s birth. I was so excited to have another girl in the family. I was already planning how I’d teach her to sing and dance and do gymnastics with me.
My mom woke me up in the middle of the night to introduce me to my baby sister, Chloe Elizabeth Raisman, a little bundle with a full head of dark hair who had been born only a few weeks before. After a while, Mom laid her carefully on the bed, and I resumed my jumping exercises.
“Aly, stop jumping on the bed!” cried my dad’s mother, whom we all called Bubbie and who lived a few miles away. “You’re going to squish the baby!” I hadn’t thought of that. Horrified, I stopped. Grandma and Bubbie frantically gestured for me to come down.
Chloe was a little over a year old when my parents got a call from the adoption agency, who informed them that Chloe had a sibling on the way. Might our family want to adopt a second child? My parents immediately said yes, and Brett and I were so excited when they told us that we broke out into our Power Rangers singing and dancing routine. That’s how Madison, born in March 2002, completed our family. This time, I knew better than to jump on the bed when Mom laid her down.
I adored being a big sister. My siblings and I would spend hours playing together. Since I was the oldest, I would pretend to be their mom, mimicking the things my mom would do for us. I took immense pride in “cooking” imaginary meals for them and taking them places in our little motorized play car that could actually be driven around the driveway. When Chloe and Madison were little, they had trouble pronouncing my nickname. When they tried to say “Aly,” it came out “Lala.” My family still calls me that today.
When friends came over, we would play school, pretending to sit in a classroom and learn things. When it was my turn to be the teacher, I relished standing at the center of the “classroom,” writing importantly on our kid-sized whiteboard, or play-grading papers. I’ll admit it: I loved being in charge.
Bubbie would take her six oldest grandkids out every Friday. Brooke, Mikayla, Tyler, Brett, Drew, and myself would all pile into the back of her minivan, which she had bought because it was the only thing you could fit so many grandchildren into. As she drove, Bubbie would quiz us: “If I have five apples, and I get two more apples, how many apples do I have?” “Seven!” we’d chorus in unison.
“All right, if I have eight bananas and three pineapples, how many bananas do I have?” she’d ask. “Eight!” we’d cry, delighted not to have fallen for the trick. “You can’t fool us!”
Bubbie was a lady with very good taste. She worked several years in retail and had a great eye for clothes. Her signature item was a golden Burberry raincoat, which she wore everywhere. One of our favorite games was to stealthily hide crackers and pretzels in the hood of the coat. Inevitably, the next time it rained, Bubbie would flip her hood up and the pretzels and crackers would fall everywhere as we shrieked with laughter. Bubbie would be annoyed, but she got over it quickly when she saw us giggling uncontrollably. She loved us unconditionally.
At night, my sisters would come into my room and cuddle up in my bed. We’d pull the covers up over our heads and pretend the bed was a boat and that we were adrift on a stormy sea. Every now and then I would cautiously stick my head out from under the covers, scanning for a lighthouse as we plotted ways to survive. Eventually, we’d fall asleep, and our parents would find us all cuddled up together the next morning.
In my waking hours, I was a little tornado of energy, careening here and there, cartwheeling through the kitchen while my mom was trying to cook, kicking into handstands against the living room wall, and being an all-around nuisance. Several jars from Mom’s collection of antique spice jars fell victim to my flying feet.
I may have been a pro at doing cartwheels, but I was not so graceful at ordinary things, like walking. Going from one room to another, it seemed like I would knock over anything in my path. I tripped over everything, especially my own feet. At restaurants with my family or at the local temple’s monthly Friday night dinners with my aunts and uncles and cousins, I would invariably spill soda as I was pouring it—on myself, on the table, on the floor, everywhere, it seemed, but into the cup it was destined for.
I was less accident-prone when there was nothing around for me to knock into. Maybe that’s why I spent so much time playing sports in wide open spaces. Besides gymnastics, I took ice skating lessons at the local rink, and played softball, basketball, and soccer, which my dad coached.
Through it all, gymnastics remained my favorite activity. The subject of pre-team came up again when I was six, and this time I was invited to join without trying out. Being on the pre-team involved longer hours at the gym, so I had to give up some of my other activities, though I stuck with soccer.
A New York Times Bestseller
An Entertainment Weekly Best YA book of 2017
"Aly Raisman is fierce in every sense of the word. Her story is one of persistence, hardship, triumph and leadership and Fierce is both inspiring and illuminating."—Billie Jean King, Founder, Women's Sports Foundation
"Aly's success as a gymnast is no doubt incredible. But Fierce gives an intimate look into her journey not just as an athlete, but as an impressive and powerful young woman. She's a role model to our daughters, an incredible friend, and the embodiment of bravery and girl power!"—Nick Swisher and JoAnna Garcia Swisher
"An appealing, readable memoir for more than just future gymnasts."—Kirkus Reviews
"...an accessible memoir, of an inspirational bent...with some vital, tender discussion of her experience of sexual assault included as well. It's a book of (appropriately) fierce advocacy."
"...lively and straightforward...Raisman's inspiring and enlightening story belongs in every teen biography collection."—SLJ
- On Sale
- Nov 14, 2017
- Page Count
- 368 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers