By Nick McCarvel

Simone Biles looks up to Aly Raisman – in a variety of ways.

“She might be crazy and we might be total opposites, but she’s still my role model,” Biles tweeted a few days after the P&G Gymnastics Championships, attaching a photo of her and Raisman side-by-side in St. Louis.

The tweet garnered nearly 2,000 favorites and 200 re-tweets. Biles attached a heart emoji to it, naturally.

Raisman’s comeback in gymnastics has meant more than just chasing an Olympic dream. At 22 years old, she’s defying age and expectations, having been a part of the Fierce Five that won the London Games team event as well as individual gold in the floor exercise and bronze on beam.

Raisman’s return is about challenging herself, doing something she never thought or dreamed that she could – and doing so exceedingly well.

“I can’t really imagine anything else this stressful and challenging,” Raisman said in the midst of the P&G Championships, where she finished second behind Biles. “I’m sure far down the road when I have kids… but it is so stressful at this point. There are only five spots so that makes it hard. The beam is only four inches wide, so any little thing can go wrong.”

Saturday night of nationals, Raisman lined up her first tumbling pass in a floor routine that has ebbed and flowed (and dare I say matured?) since 2012 when she was the best in the world. She hit her one-and-a-half through to Arabian double punch layout, sticking her landing and then something strange happened: She burst into a mid-routine smile.

“Once I get through the first two passes, I feel really confident,” Raisman said later, that smile reemerging onto her face. “Everyday in the gym, we do competition routines. There are some days when I’m really tired. Sometimes it feels like it’s not coming, but he make me do it anyways. It doesn’t matter as long as we keep doing it.”

© John Cheng

“As long as we keep doing it.” It’s an utterance that Raisman meant for her training, but can apply to her life. Mihai Brestyan, her coach, has pushed her as hard as anyone, offering a sort of regimented training that has not only brought her back to that level of 2012, but perhaps even past it. The journey has been a challenge at times.

There were moments that Raisman, so exhausted from her training at the gym, would have to call her dad to pick her up, Aly shaking from the pain. She worried she might be pushing herself too hard, especially at the “old” gymnastics age of 22.

“When I first came back, Mihai said to ignore the stuff about my age,” Raisman said.

But now she’s embraced that age, and her role. She is a quiet leader for the U.S. women, speaking to the group of competitors before they walked out for both nights of competition in St. Louis, sharing with them that she – Aly Raisman – was scared, too, and that they would all get through this together. “Mama Aly” is her nickname.

“Before the meet, I go to the girls and tell them how nervous I am,” she said. “I tell them to take competitions like this as if we’re on a national team assignment and we’re in a team competition atmosphere. We all want to make that Olympic team, but if we’re all rooting for each other, it makes it better. It’s brutal going one at a time here.”

While Biles is smiled and relaxed to bring out her best, Raisman is stone-faced and focused. It’s different, but it’s what works for each of the girls, and they feed off one another. Follow their eyes during St. Louis and at times they lock in assuring glances: “We can do this together.”

Four years after she was a breakout star, Raisman is allowing herself to enjoy the journey – her journey – that she has created for herself. Yes, it’s a lot of work, but it’s a lot of enjoyment, too. She is living her dream out – again.

“For me now, I’m trying to think about that there’s two months left and I just want to enjoy it,” she said. “I think we’re all doing a good job of trying to help each other survive this. We’re just trying to use each other to keep one another calm.”

The bond with Biles – and the rest of the U.S. team – is something Raisman has forged in the last four years as she’s found herself a part of a new generation of American gymnastics.

She and Simone never hesitate to push each other, even when they’re in the same group.

“We always tell each other to ‘Break the beam,’ so we go up there and be really aggressive, and that works for us,” Raisman said. “I was really happy that I got put in the same group as her; she doesn’t seem to get nervous on the outside.”

Biles leaves the worrying to “Mama Aly,” of course.