By Jo-Ann Barnas, Special Contributor
RIO DE JANEIRO – It was an uneven bars routine, one of hundreds that Aly Raisman has performed in competition and training as a two-time member of the U.S. Olympic women’s gymnastics team.
But when she stuck her landing in team qualifying Sunday at the Rio Olympics, it signified something more beyond her score (14.733). As Raisman has come to understand, life sometimes has a way of presenting rose-in-bloom moments when you least expect – or, when you need them most.
As a two-time captain of the U.S. Olympic team, Raisman once again relied on her treasure trove of experience – and heck, after hanging onto her balance beam routine, a little luck – in helping the U.S. surge into Tuesday night’s team final while grabbing the second spot for Thursday’s individual all-around competition for the Americans behind three-time World champ Simone Biles. That she edged 2012 Olympic all-around gold medalist Gabby Douglas by doing so only added to the intrigue.
But whatever you do, don’t call Raisman a two-time spoiler – in part because it’s demeaning, but mostly because it doesn’t correctly represent what she has become, which is Team USA’s most reliable competitor not named Biles.
True, we’ve seen this storyline before: At the 2012 London Olympics, Raisman was the top scorer for the U.S. in the all-around in the preliminaries, with Douglas .126 right behind her and Jordyn Wieber – the defending World champion – .359 behind.
But because of the two-per-country rule, Wieber was relegated to the sidelines for the all-around final.
Raisman ended up winning a team-leading three Olympic medals in those Games – a team gold with her Fierce Five teammates, and individual gold on floor exercise and bronze on balance beam. She nearly won a fourth, if not for a controversial rule that rolled into place when Raisman tied for third in the all-around final with Russia Aliya Mustafina, each scoring 59.566.
According to FIG rules duplicate medals aren’t awarded in the event of a tie. Instead, judges must discard each gymnasts’ lowest score and add the remaining three. In London, that meant dropping both competitor’s beam scores — Raisman’ 14.200 and Mustafina’s 13.633 – even though Raisman performed better on the event. That gave the Russian the bronze medal by 0.567.
Raisman has never tried to conceal her distaste with that, or the two-per-country rule, which she equally despises.
“I think all five of us could make all-around finals,” she said Sunday. “I wish they would change it, but I don’t think they ever will.”
After the London Olympics, Raisman stepped away from competitive gymnastics for a year, only to find out that when she returned, she needed another full season to get into top shape under longtime coach Mihai Brestyan.
Keeping that fire lit was a pang she felt every time her mind referenced back to the events of 2012. She told herself that if had an opportunity to return to the Olympic stage in the all-around, she would fight to the finish again.
“The thing that still lingers in my head is that I almost got that all-around medal,” Raisman told USA Gymnastics for a YouTube video story in 2014 (see below). “I tied for it and they didn’t give it to me – so I think that’s something that I still think about all the time and I still use that for motivation when I’m really tired and I’m having a rough day. I think about how painful that was for me to not get that medal even though I did have the third-highest score and I tied. It’s very… it’s one of those things that I think will always bother me.”
Now fast-forward to Sunday.
After posting an all-around score of 60.607 in qualifying Sunday, Raisman bounced into the mixed zone wearing an ear-to-ear grin.
“I’m going to frame this leotard!” she said.
Olympic rookie Madison Kocian, the top-scorer on uneven bars (15.866), said that she’s living the best of both worlds in Rio: Not only is Raisman her teammate, but they’re also roomies in the Olympic Village.
“It was such a good decision that she wanted to come back, that she wasn’t done after 2012,” Kocian said of her 22-year-old teammate who’s affectionately known at Momma Aly or Grandma Aly. “I’ve been rooming with her at Olympic trials in San Jose and here, and that’s helped me a lot. She tells me before I compete, ‘Don’t forget, you’re reigning world champion (on uneven bars),’ and I say, ‘Don’t forget, you’re the reigning Olympic champ (on floor).'”
Biles said of Raisman: “I’m super excited for her. She brings confidence to all of us and we all keep calm whenever she talks to us. She knows what the Olympics are like, and we’re all handling it very well because of her.”
As the countdown for Tuesday’s team final gets underway, Raisman knows that the pressure on Team USA will be dialed up a few notches despite their dominating performance in qualifying – they finished nearly 10 points ahead of their closest competitor, second-place China.
One thing is for certain, though, Martha Karolyi – the women’s national team coordinator – is sure pleased to have Raisman back.
Asked what she remembers when Raisman talked to her a few years ago about her comeback, Karolyi said: “For anybody who’s coming back, I’m absolutely happy, but you have to know that the requirements are the same for you as they are (for anyone else). It doesn’t matter if you have two or three Olympic medals, we will have a straight-forward selection and have the same expectations for everybody.
“And she said, ‘I’m ready for that.'”
Was she ever.