LONDON — Three times Aly Raisman endured agonizing waits. After almost making the podium in last Thursday’s all-around, she had to twiddle her thumbs for five days until her next chance. After the balance beam Tuesday, she had to wait for the scoring upgrade that gave her the bronze medal on a tiebreaker. Finally, after the best floor routine of her life, Raisman had to wait 20 long minutes as five rivals tried to beat her score.
The reward for all that waiting: the individual gold medal she had dreamed of.
“Today has been a dream come true,” the 18-year-old Needham, Mass., native said Tuesday after she had outpointed Romania’s Catalina Ponor by a substantial four tenths of a point to become the first American gymnast of either gender to win the event at the Games.
“I’m so glad I got the medal I wanted,” said Raisman.
While Raisman already had earned a team gold, the first by the United States at an overseas Games, she wanted one for herself and the floor exercises were both her best and final chance. When she made it happen with an authoritative performance, it was a gilded punctuation mark for an American squad that, after the high of Gabby Douglas’s win last Thursday in the all-around, had been running out of gas.
McKayla Maroney, the skyrocketing vaulter who had been considered the surest bet for gold, literally had it come out from under her after a sitdown landing and had to settle for silver. Then Douglas, depleted from doing a dozen routines in five days, finished last in Monday’s uneven bars and seventh on beam after losing her footing and clinging to the apparatus from below, “I’m going home with two gold medals so I’m very happy,” said Douglas. “I put my all into it.”
So it was left to Raisman, the team captain and its most experienced member, to produce one final anthem for the planet’s best quintet. “This was what she truly deserved,” said longtime team coordinator Martha Karolyi, who considers Raisman her hardest worker.
Raisman, who’d been second in the qualifying round and hoped for the all-around gold, came in a dispirited fourth after losing a tiebreaker to Russian former world titlist Aliya Mustafina. While she didn’t figure to outpoint China’s Deng Linlin and Sui Lu on beam, she thought she’d taken third ahead of Ponor, the 2004 champion. When the judges put her fourth by a tenth, coach Mihai Brestyan immediately filed an inquiry before the competitors left the floor.
At issue was whether Raisman had performed a pirouette combination. “They thought she didn’t connect,” said Brestyan. When the video review showed that she had, the additional tenth put Raisman equal with Ponor. “I see the same situation and already I was afraid,” said Brestyan, who was carrying a four-leaf clover in his pocket for luck. While the difficulty of Raisman’s routine still was three tenths below Ponor’s, the decisive execution score (8.766) was three tenths higher.
“Justice was made,” proclaimed Karolyi.
And Raisman finally could exhale and move on to where the gold was. “It felt like redemption,” she said. “I went out into the next event with a really good feeling. I wanted to win a medal in an individual event, so once I achieved that goal I felt like I could just go out there and enjoy myself.”
The Romanians had owned the floor exercises ever since Nadia Comaneci’s day, winning or sharing six of the last eight gold medals. Ponor, summoned out of retirement at 24 to reinforce a young squad, had prevailed in Athens and Sandra Izbasa had outpointed Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin in Beijing.
But Raisman, the world bronze medalist, had posted the top score in qualifying and was both relaxed and energized. “The warmup in the gym was good,” said Brestyan. “I say, today is our day.”
When Russian world floor champion Ksenia Afanasyeva stepped out of bounds twice on tumbling passes and was stuck with a 14.566 score that put her out of medal contention, the path was clear for Raisman. Her turn came after teammate Jordyn Wieber, the global all-around champion who’d been competing with a stress fracture in a heel, who also went out of bounds.
But Raisman, whose opening double Arabian included the layout that she’d omitted to her detriment in the all-around, submitted the routine of her dreams as her teammates exulted in the stands.
“I was thinking that I would definitely get a medal,” Raisman said. “And I was hoping that it would be gold.”
When Ponor came up short and Australia’s Lauren Mitchell and Italy’s Vanessa Ferrari both earned 14s, Raisman knew she was assured of a podium place but she wanted gold and she didn’t want to win it by default.
“It makes it that much better if everyone does well,” she said. So Raisman, who was watching from next to the horizontal bar, clapped for Mustafina, whose 14.900 earned her second bronze on a tiebreaker, this time over Ferrari.
Only Romania’s Izbasa remained, and when she fell to her knees just before the end of her routine and ended up last, Brestyan dashed over and lifted Raisman aloft with a bear hug.
“Just to see how happy Mihai was, was the best feeling for me,” said Raisman, who completed her senior year at Needham High online this year so that she could train seven hours a day with him in his Burlington gym.
Thus did the girl who determined four years ago that she would be here now finish off her waiting games with a floor fantasy.
“To do it in the Olympics is amazing,” said Raisman. “That’s what you wish for your whole life.”