Check back Sunday for honorable mentions in this year’s Bostonians of the Year.
THE APPLAUSE BEGINS BUILDING as soon as she steps onto the floor of the TD Garden, even before the announcer can say her name. By the time the phrase “hometown hero” leaves his lips, a wild roar has swept through the packed arena. Admiring parents cheer while their adoring daughters scream. Their young sons, whose facial expressions had suggested reluctant attendance at this performance of the Kellogg’s Tour of Gymnastics Champions, even they begin to join in with vigorous applause.
Aly Raisman has that effect on people. Especially this year. Especially in this corner of the world.
Three of Raisman’s four teammates from the “Fierce Five” are also there to perform. The crowd of 16,000 bathes Gabby Douglas and the other golden girls in warm cheer, but saves their screams for the 18-year-old pride of Needham.
Still, the most telling part of the show comes when the men perform. A group of the country’s top male gymnasts, including Jake Dalton and Jonathan Horton and other members of the 2008 and 2012 Olympic teams, forms a circle in the center of the floor. The soundtrack shifts to LMFAO’s “Sexy and I Know It.” With that, the guys begin peeling off their shirts and dancing like Channing Tatum in Magic Mike. The moms in the crowd ooh and ahh over this collection of handsome faces sitting atop perfectly sculpted torsos. Some even use their oversize $15 glossy programs to fan themselves, summoning the drama of a Tennessee Williams character greeting her gentleman caller. On this 40-stop national tour, the men’s squad, which placed fifth in London, plainly has been relegated to a junior role.
Forty years ago, when US Senator Birch Bayh introduced the 37 words that would become the sex-discrimination ban in higher education known as Title IX, he spoke these words: “We are all familiar with the stereotype of women as pretty things who go to college to find a husband. . . . But the facts absolutely contradict these myths about the ‘weaker sex,’ and it is time to change our operating assumptions.” He was speaking in the early 1970s, a time when women were the only sex treated as appendages and eye candy, and the popular conception of the female athlete began and ended with the cheerleader. Yet if there was ever an Olympics that showed those assumptions to be as embarrassingly dated as leisure suits, it was the 2012 Summer Games.
For the first time in Olympic history, there were more women than men on the US team, and every nation — even Saudi Arabia — had a coed squad. American female athletes snared not just more total medals than their male teammates, but nearly twice as many golds. In fact, the American women alone won more golds (29) than the complete squads from every other country besides China (38) and Great Britain (also 29). In addition to Raisman’s gold in floor — the first for an American woman — and her bronze in beam, she was captain of the gold-winning US women’s gymnastics team. London marked the only time besides the Atlanta Games when the American female gymnasts took home the team gold.
The night after the Boston show, Massachusetts’s other 2012 gold medalist, Kayla Harrison, walks the red carpet at a New York gala. The 22-year-old Marblehead resident is being honored as one of Glamour magazine’s Women of the Year, alongside such luminaries as Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. A true Olympic trailblazer, Harrison this year became the first American, of either sex, ever to win the gold in judo. And her courageous decision to go public with her wrenching story of childhood sexual abuse likely changed a lot of lives.
On this night, she has traded in her white judo gi, or uniform, for a sequined designer dress that gives her the vintage look of a Hollywood bombshell. As she scans the other honorees in the room, from one of the world’s top architects to an Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker, she can’t help but tell herself, “Wow, it’s cool to be a woman.”
Never more than now. For their shining achievements in this year of the female athlete and for their sustained ability to inspire, Aly Raisman and Kayla Harrison are the Globe Magazine’s Bostonians of the Year.
KAYLA HARRISON STANDS NEAR THE DOOR of Pedro’s Judo Center, on the second floor of a warehouse in Wakefield. A pair of girls from the class for 4- to 6-year-olds file in. They’re waist-high to Harrison, their hair as blond as hers.
“Konnichiwa!” they shout in succession, high-fiving their sensei. Harrison smiles and returns the Japanese greeting. These days, about half the kids in the classes at Pedro’s are girls.
Harrison herself was just 6, growing up in rural Ohio, when her mother signed her up for her first judo class. The sport was still thoroughly male. It had become an Olympic event for women just four years earlier, at the 1992 Games.
Her mother wanted her to learn self-defense. The cruel irony of Harrison’s life is that judo became not just the source of her strength but also the source of her violation. Her coach, who had become a trusted family friend, started sexually abusing Harrison when she was 12. He continued his abuse for four years, until her mother found out about it, leading to the coach’s arrest and ultimate 10-year sentence.
“My brain was not developed at 12,” Harrison says. “I didn’t know what love was. I thought I did.” That’s what allows adults to exercise so much power over children, she says, citing a staggering if controversial estimate that 1 in 4 girls have been sexually abused by the time they turn 18.
At 16, Harrison was despondent and decided to quit judo. But sensing that the sport might well provide her best route to recovery, her family encouraged her to double down on it. She moved from Ohio to Massachusetts, to live in an apartment with a few teammates and train at the Wakefield judo center run by force of nature “Big Jim” Pedro and his son Jimmy, a four-time Olympian and two-time bronze medalist. It was an incredible leap of faith, particularly for so broken a girl. “Because Big Jim and Jimmy believed in me and the fact that I could get over it, after a while I believed in myself again,” she says. “They changed my life and saved my life.” She also credits the support of fellow judo athlete Aaron Handy, who is now her fiance.
Last year, Harrison sat down with a USA Today writer for a pre-Olympic profile. The revolting revelations about another coach-turned-abuser, Jerry Sandusky, were dominating the news. She decided to break the silence about her past. “When you stand up,” she says now, “that weight you feel is gone.”
Since making Olympic history, Harrison has been using her celebrity to raise awareness. Abuse has to stop, she says, and with education, it can. “We’ve got to be able to look at it in the eye. We can’t dance around it,” she says. “That’s my job, to make people look at it.” She has begun planning a foundation that she hopes will become a clearinghouse for the many tiny nonprofits working to reduce abuse.
Meanwhile, Harrison also sees herself as an ambassador for judo — “It’s like a chess match, but you get to throw the other person, so I love it!” — and more generally for women pushing traditional boundaries. She likes being ferocious on the mat but feminine outside the gym, getting her nails done and shopping on Newbury Street. As she puts it, “It’s cool to be a fit chick now.”
A month before her Glamour event, Harrison was in New York to receive the Wilma Rudolph Courage Award from the Women’s Sports Foundation. Among the other honorees that night was Birch Bayh, the retired Indiana senator known as the “Father of Title IX.” During the Olympics, the 84-year-old had paid keen attention to the women’s events, in this 40th year of the legislation that ended up reducing the yawning gender gap in the funding of college sports. “I was so proud of those young ladies,” he says from his home on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. “But I must admit, not in my wildest dreams did I ever think my work would sire a judo champion!”
ALY RAISMAN CURLS UP ON THE LIVING ROOM COUCH, pulling an afghan over her legs, as her white Maltese lap dog Magic nestles near her feet. It’s only her fourth brief visit home in the three months since the Olympics. She still can’t get over her initial return, when news helicopters literally hovered over her limo as it traveled from Logan to her house in Needham. “You fly to London, going as a nobody,” she says. “And then you come back and everyone knows who you are.” She was so naive that she thought by simply wearing her hair down, no one would recognize her. Her punishing post-London schedule has been packed with one high-profile event after another, from hanging with Rihanna at the MTV Video Music Awards to appearing on Dancing With the Stars to taking a turn sitting behind the president’s desk in the Oval Office.
“Aly is a good soul,” says her longtime coach, Mihai Brestyan, who watched her TD Garden performance from the unfamiliar perch of the audience. “She could be stuck up with all this attention,” he says, pushing up his nose with his pointer finger. “But she has remained true to herself.”
At home, her highs are a lot lower-profile. On this mid-November afternoon following the Boston show, she is grateful simply to be able to relax with her three younger siblings and three of her friends who had crashed there the night before — two former high school classmates and fellow Fierce Fiver Jordyn Wieber.
Working on computers at a curved desk behind the couch are Raisman’s parents, Rick and Lynn. The couple became an Internet sensation when the clip of their nervous swaying and exaggerated wincing during Aly’s qualifying round went viral. (“Stick it! Stick it!’’) Some viewers assumed they must have been the ultimate stage parents, but Aly says her drive has always been internal. “Maybe in that video they looked a little bit crazy, but they’re not like that at all,” she says. “I’m glad they showed that video,” because it reflects the reality of the worry coursing through everyone’s veins. “We’re nervous. Our parents are nervous,” Aly says. “It’s a normal thing.”
Although little about her life is normal these days, she hopes eventually to go to college and “be a regular kid.” When her 16-year-old brother begins going on campus tours, she plans to tag along, looking for herself. Yet she also hopes to make another Olympic run in Rio. She says she thinks the second time would be easier, “not easier physically but maybe easier mentally.”
Kayla Harrison also plans to train for the 2016 Games. Regardless of what happens in Rio, both Aly and Kayla will forever be Olympic champions, even if their white-hot celebrity will one day cool down.
As highly sought after as she is, Harrison knows what most people want from her is simply to touch her gold medal, which she has playfully named Fred. Harrison asks: “Does it get old when they say, ‘Oh, my God, your medal is so heavy!’?” (The thing weighs nearly a pound.) “Yes. But still, I’m not suffering. And I bring them a little bit of happiness.”
Besides, there are a ton of top-tier competitors, especially men in this year of the female athlete, who wish they had a Fred in their lives.