Jews in Sports: Aly Raisman: Olympic travail and triumph by Bill Simons

Summer has come and gone, and the 2020 Summer Olympics number amongst the many casualties of the Coronavirus pandemic. For Jews, the Olympics have brought both tragedy and victory. The 1936 Berlin Olympics, hosted by Adolf Hitler, enabled the Third Reich to pose as a reasonable regime, thus sadly encouraging Western appeasement and German ambition. The 1972 Munich Olympics were the setting for the slaughter of 11 Israeli athletes by Black September terrorists. The Olympics have, however, also provided the venue for extraordinary achievements by Jewish athletes. Mark Spitz won a then unprecedented seven gold medals in the tragic Munich Olympics. At the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, GA, gymnast Kerri Strug, despite injury and excruciating pain, summoned valor and talent to perform a memorable vault that enabled the United States to take the gold from the favored Russian team. And the great Jewish-American gymnast Aly Raisman has experienced both Olympic travail and triumph. 

Only 18 years old at the time of the 2012 Olympics, Raisman, a photogenic 5’2” brunette from Needham, MA, emerged as an athletic and media phenomenon during the London competition. Even Raisman’s two biggest boosters, her engaging and animated parents, Lynn and Rick, acquired a measure of celebrity. As captain of the U.S. women’s gymnastics team, “the Fierce Five,” Raisman projected athletic mastery, steely resolve and preternatural leadership. Taking on the balance beam, Raisman, fortified by mettle and intense preparation, defied the laws of gravity. Performing her floor routine – punctuated by dramatic leaps, acrobatic flips, pneumatic cartwheels and theatrical tumbling turns – to the choreographed music of the iconic Israeli folk song “Hava Nagila,” Raisman highlighted her connection to fellow Jews. 

Although Jacques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee, rebuffed the request for a moment of silence at the opening ceremony to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the murder of Israeli athletics at the Munich games, Raisman’s support for a prime-time remembrance led many Jews to cast her as a standard bearer. Abraham Foxman, director of the Anti-Defamation League, said of Raisman: “She is a remarkable young woman who stood up for what she believed was right.” Two years short of her 20th birthday, Raisman, in a landmark performance, won two gold medals and a bronze at the 2012 Olympics, as well as admiration for her character and commitment. She had attained the status of American and Jewish hero. 

The 2016 encore Rio de Janeiro Olympics proved a memorable encore for Raisman. Although the spotlight frequently shown on the nonpareil athletic artistry of teammate Simone Biles, Raisman again captained the U.S. women’s gymnastic team and turned in another stellar performance. She won three medals, a gold for the first-place finish of the U.S. squad in team competition and two silvers in, respectively, the individual all-around and floor exercise events. Now the eldest member – the “Grandma” – of her team, Raisman at Rio de Janeiro still possessed her signature virtuosity, strength and determination, yet expressed unselfish appreciation of teammate Biles’ dominance. USA Today pundit Luke Kerr-Dineen observed of Raisman’s dignity at the 2016 Olympics, “She wasn’t being driven by the darkness that comes with trophy hunting… It was the love of the sport pushing Raisman forward. It wasn’t about winning or losing anymore, it was about what it meant to her. There’s something beautiful about that.”

Celebrity brought recognition and rewards. Raisman’s image and activities pervaded media platforms. With Jews from all over the world, including the legendary Israeli President Shimon Peres, in attendance and applauding, Reisman lit the ceremonial torch to commence the quadrennial Maccabiah Games, the “Jewish Olympics,” at Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem on July 19, 2013. With her “Fierce Five” teammates, she met with President Barack Obama, who proved more adept at statecraft than gymnastic splits, in the Oval Office. Time 100 honored Raisman as one of the most influential people in the world. Partnered with Mark Ballas, Raisman radiated glamor and dynamism on “Dancing with the Stars.” Her evocative photos appeared in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. Extensive publicity surrounded Raisman’s romance with handsome NFL tight end Colton Underwood. Seemingly, Raisman had morphed into a real life Jewish-American Wonder Woman. 

The journey to excellence, however, often exacts a heavy toll, particularly on those who attain that status in their youth. Serious gymnastic competition requires long, grueling hours of practice commenced at an early age. By age 10, Raisman practiced four hours a day and that would lengthen to seven-hour daily workouts. Bullying boys mocked her muscles. Summoning the resolve to project a confident demeanor belied the fear of heights that Raisman felt on the bars. Like all elite athletes, Raisman experienced cycles of pain, injury and rehabilitation. Relationships and a balanced coming of age were casualties of her demanding regimen. The taxonomy of competition immersed Raisman in the autocratic residential training camp of coaches Bela and Martha Karolyi. Raisman’s frenetic schedule of practice, travel and competition left little room for extracurricular activities, family gatherings, parties, dating or friendships rooted in just hanging out. Training for the 2012 Olympics necessitated Raisman completing her senior year of high school online. 

Even more disturbing, for years, USA Gymnastics failed to protect more than 140 young women athletes under its domain from the predatory sexual abuse of Dr. Larry Nassar, the team physician. Indeed, USA Gymnastics participated in the coverup of Nassar’s heinous behavior and later sought, unsuccessfully, to absolve its negligence by offering a modest financial settlement. A once trusted expert on hip and back pain, Nassar, with gifts and faux solicitude, groomed these young girls for abuse. Raisman’s sessions with Nassar began when she was 15. At Nassar’s trial, Raisman was one of those who bravely confronted her abuser. Looking Nassar directly in the eye, she stated, “I am not sure I will ever come to terms with how horribly you manipulated and violated me… The effects of your actions are far-reaching. Abuse goes way beyond the moment, often haunting survivors for the rest of their lives, making it difficult to trust and impacting their relationships.” Influenced by the forceful and wrenching victim impact statements of Raisman and other women, Nassar’s sentence amounted to lifetime incarceration. 

For Raisman, the present is a time for respite, recovery and reflection. Years of intense training, sexual abuse and the rigors of advocating for other victims have taken a toll on her in the form of exhaustion, anxiety, depression and migraines. Nonetheless, an underlying template of strength endures. It takes courage to acknowledge the need for help, and Raisman, with the help of therapy, meditation, yoga, journal entries, supportive dogs and reading, has done that. She has opened herself to new friendships and new experiences. While remaining close to her loving family, Raisman is, for the first time, living in a place of her own. She is excited to work with Olay on its skin sun-protection campaign. The initial outlines of a new life agenda with recalibrated goals are starting to emerge. Although Raisman will not try out for the rescheduled Olympics, she still loves gymnastics and is committed to making the sport safe for girls and young women. With protection and assistance, Raisman wants girls and young women to be able to express the dreams and excitement she felt when proclaiming as an 8-year old, “I’m gonna do that.” Setting her own schedule and following her own compass, Aly Raisman will notch new milestones. Count on it. 

Bill Simons is a professor of history at SUNY Oneonta, whose course offerings include sport and ethnic history. He is also the co-director of The Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture, and served as a speaker for the New York Council on the Humanities.