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Needham flips for Olympian

Aly Raisman's hometown cheers on her performance in London

By Billy Baker
Globe Staff / July 31, 2012
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NEEDHAM — Her parents are suddenly Internet sensations. The Burlington gym where she trains is being rushed by parents signing their kids up for gymnastics. Her hometown of Needham is blanketed with congratulatory signs — and with media looking for anecdotes on the world’s newest Olympic star.

Aly Raisman mania has officially taken off.

The 18-year-old Olympic gymnast stunned the London Games on Sunday during the qualifying round when she edged teammate, roommate, and defending world champion, Jordyn Wieber, for one of the US team’s two spots in the women’s all-around finals.

Her performance, including a stellar floor routine, is being billed as a shocking upset. But for the people of Needham, it was no surprise. They know Aly Raisman.

“I always knew she had it in her,” said Kristi Carlson, one of Raisman’s best friends from Needham High School. “This is just her hard work paying off. Now it’s just so surreal to go into a restaurant and hear people talking about your friend.”

While Raisman stole the show on the gym floor, it was her nervous parents, Ricky and Lynn, who stole the show in the stands, because of an NBC camera trained on them during Aly’s routine on the uneven bars. Their accidental comic performance — they looked as if they were on a roller coaster as they contorted their bodies along with their daughter — has become an Internet phenomenon. Websites have tracked the number of times Lynn Raisman said “Come on,” “Let’s go,” “Catch it,” and “Stick it” during the 45-second clip. (For the record, it was 10, 7, 4, and 2, as well as a very relieved “Yeah!” after her daughter did indeed stick the landing.)

“If you need a textbook definition for squirming, there it is,” Stu Carpenter, a friend of Ricky Raisman, said of the clip. “We saw [Ricky] a week before the nationals, and he looked ashen, just a nervous wreck. This must just be so great for them. This is what their daughter has trained her whole life for.”

Raisman fever has been building in Needham since she first qualified for the Olympic team. There are signs all over town bragging about their favorite daughter. “All of Needham wishes you the best,” read one banner hanging on a nursing home. But on Monday, the energy in town rose to a new level.

“Everyone was so excited that she made the team,” said Paul Buckley, the local fire chief, “but I was in a coffee shop today, and it’s just so much more.”

At Brestyan’s American Gymnastics Club in Burlington, Raisman’s home gym, parents had been streaming in all morning to sign their children up to train where Aly Raisman trains.

“Everyone wants to be like Aly,” said Rashawn Harrison, one of the coaches at the gym. “And that’s a good thing, because she’s well-mannered, respectful, hard-working. Kids should want to be like her.”

It is her hard work that has long awed friends and coaches.

“Nobody works harder than her. Nobody,” said Joyce Skudris, a coach at the gym who has known Raisman for years. “I’m not surprised that she did it. Mihai [Brestyan, Raisman’s coach] has always said that if Aly stays focused, you can’t stop her. And she was focused.”

Victoria Stavropoulos, who has been close friends with Raisman since the sixth grade, said that Raisman is simply reaping the rewards of her incredible commitment to the sport.

“This has been such a long process, and to see her go through it all, to progress to this level, is just amazing,” she said.

Maddie McGill, another close friend, said that when she first started getting to know Raisman, she told her father that her new friend was going to be an Olympic gymnast one day. “He didn’t really give it much thought, but once he met her and saw her drive and personality, he said, ‘Yes, yes she is.’ ”

While Raisman’s success is no surprise to her friends, the hoopla that is now descending upon her is.

“I was in a restaurant over the weekend, and she was on TV being interviewed by Ryan Seacrest,” McGill said. “It’s so weird that my friend is now this famous athlete. She’s just my friend Aly.”

At Raisman’s gymnastics club in Burlington, there is a framed poster of Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci on the wall. Comaneci is a legend, the winner of the most-coveted prize in gymnastics, the gold medal in the women’s all-around. After Raisman’s solid qualifying effort where she posted the second-highest score of the night, Raisman has a legitimate chance to join that pantheon. She performs Tuesday in the team final. The women’s all-around competition is Thursday.

As young girls practiced their tumbling Monday afternoon at the gym while TV news crews filmed, the excitement was flying over their heads.

“What’s an Olympian?” asked 6-year-old Eloise Barriault of Billerica.

Well, Eloise, an Olympian is Aly Raisman.

Billy Baker can be reached at billybaker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @billy_baker.

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