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OLYMPIANS AMONG US

By Jason Mastrodonato
Globe Correspondent / July 22, 2012
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NEWTON – The small building tucked between groves of trees on Wells Avenue doesn’t exactly look like a place where Olympic dreams are born.

Construction cones block off the small parking lot, and gravel is scattered about like giant cookie crumbs. The awning covering the front door is worn, its original color long washed out to a shade of mint made worse by a backdrop of rusty-red bricks.

But once inside the Exxcel gym, surrounded by dozens of future Olympic hopefuls, energetic coaches, first-place banners, and hundreds upon hundreds of trophies — many of which are bigger than most of the young gymnasts — it’s easy to imagine a preteen Aly Raisman discovering the talent that will be on full display in London when the 2012 Summer Games commence on Friday.

Now 18, the Needham resident headlines a handful of local athletes who will be competing for medals across the Atlantic.

The US rowing team will be well represented by Concord-Carlisle High School graduate Kristin Hedstrom, Gevvie Stone of Newton, and former Harvard captain Will Newell of Weston. Newton’s Stuart McNay will make his second Olympic appearance for the sailing team, after competing in Beijing in 2008.

Both Shelley Olds (Groton) and Evelyn Stevens (Acton) have been biking competitively for less than four years, yet they have already risen to the top in their field, and will represent the United States.

But Raisman should see the most time on the NBC Sports Network’s coverage, as part of a five-women contingent of US gymnasts favored to capture gold.

Her quick rise to fame has left Raisman with a sponsorship from Ralph Lauren and more than 31,000 Twitter followers (@Aly_Raisman) as of Monday. Her mother, Lynn, is still getting used to the extra attention herself — she can’t even get through the line at the supermarket without getting approached.

It’s funny, then, for Lynn Raisman to think back to the days when Aly was training at Exxcel, from 1999 to 2004, when she was 10.

“She was good,” Lynn said. “But everyone else around Aly was really good too.”

Exxcel coach Alex Toumilovich agrees.

Raisman didn’t have ground-breaking talent. But to the trained eye of Toumilovich, a gymnast who would have competed in the 1980 Olympics for Belorussia had his country not joined the political boycott of the Moscow Games, Raisman had some other qualities that might have been more important.

“She was hard-working,” the coach said. “She was hungry to learn something. And she was really strong.

“To be in the state selection, go to the regionals and then the nationals, you have to be able to do 10 chin-ups, and perfectly. Aly could do 20 or more, easily. And she was 7 years old.

“One day I asked her to set her record in front of a group of kids. She did 25. I remember I could only do 15.”

Toumilovich walked back to the corner office of the building and thumbed through a stack of old framed photos before he found the one of Raisman.

She was probably about 8 years old in the picture, and she is shown holding herself up on a pair of handlebars.

Toumilovich, a judge at the 1994 World Championships, can easily identify where Raisman would be deducted points. Her legs, which are being held high in the air, could be a little straighter. And less bend in her arms wouldn’t hurt either. But what he does notice is incredible muscular strength for such a young girl.

“It’s so natural,” he said. “And look how focused she is – that’s what makes her good.”

National team coordinator Martha Karolyi has been very public of her assessment of Raisman as being consistent and dependable.

Lynn Raisman says her daughter takes pride in that description. But those who watched her grow at Exxcel will always be a little extra proud of the gymnast that every young girl on Wells Avenue looks up to.

“From the outside she was just an ordinary kid,” said Melissa McManus, a former coach and babysitter of Raisman’s. “But what we look for in here, we could see it in Aly.

“Some girls, when they make it big, that’s it, they don’t want to talk to you. If Aly sees you, she’ll run up and give you a hug. She’s just one of those kids.”

Gib Hedstrom watched as his daughter, Kristin, tried every sport imaginable as a kid until finally, at age 15, one of them fit.

Who would have thought it would have been rowing?

“Every kid has this potential hidden inside, and no parent knows what it is,” he said. “The dream is to help the kid find their magic and unlock the potential. And encourage your kid to shoot for the stars, even if that means putting a career on hold.”

Said Buzz Congram, the longtime rowing coach at Northeastern University who started a small program in Concord where Hedstrom got her start: “She was so tiny – I thought she would have ended up as a coxswain. But she has incredible athleticism and determination, and that’s how she got’’ to the Olympcs.

A three-time Head of the Charles champion, Hedstrom qualified for the Olympic team by 0.09 seconds.

Evelyn Stevens is quite proud of her Bay State roots, having graduated from Acton-Boxborough Regional High, where she played tennis and ran cross-country and indoor track.

She said if she wins a medal, the first place she’s taking it is to her parents’ house on Cape Cod. They supported her through one of the most difficult decisions she ever had to make, when four years ago she left her cushy job on Wall Street to pursue a career in competitive biking.

“Because of them I’ve had a chance to live out my dreams,” the 29-year-old Stevens said via e-mail from Spain, where she has been training for London. “I’m still amazed I’m actually going to the Olympics.”

Shelley Olds was a talented soccer player at Groton-Dunstable Regional High. But when she showed up at Roanoke College, women’s soccer coach Phil Benne had never heard of her.

He called around, but that was unnecessary. Once he saw her play, he knew she was special. “She was a Division 3 coach’s dream,” he said.

The 5-foot-2 Olds was a two-time captain and Old Dominion Athletic Conference Player of the Year before graduating Roanoke in 2003. Benne said she had an outstanding motor that allowed her to play all 90 minutes from end to end, and he isn’t surprised to see her heading to London.

She “found” cycling after moving to California. “I met a group of people who were avid cyclists and I started riding every day. It sure beat running to stay in shape.”

But Olds still wonders what it would have been like if she kept playing the sport she loved most.

“I always regretted not following through with my soccer career,” she said in an e-mail from Spain, where she also was training.

“I dreamed of being a part of a professional team and playing for the USA Team in the Olympics. I loved feeling part of a team.

“Cycling is a little different, but I love them both.”

Gevvie Stone’s parents, Gregg and Lisa, were both elite rowers on US Olympic teams. The top-ranked men’s single sculler in the country, Gregg never got the chance to compete due to the boycott in 1980; Lisa competed in Montreal in 1976 in the women’s coxed quad sculls.

Gregg Stone says he hardly thinks about the missed opportunity. Besides, he’s getting a chance to live in the Olympic Village 32 years later — as Gevvie’s rowing coach. Her mother coached Gevvie at the Winsor School in Boston.

“Our paths are quite parallel and that’s important,” he said. “I’ve been there and done it. I have the same body type. I can translate everything I learned myself. . . . She tried out [in 2008] and didn’t make it, and I tried out in ’76 and didn’t make it. I just wasn’t strong enough. I switched to single sculler . . . She switched to single sculling, took her a little bit longer.’’

As for coaching his daughter, Stone said, “There is some nitpicking that goes on that probably wouldn’t with a professional coach. I’m surprised how well it’s worked out. But if she asked me to stop coaching her, I would immediately.”

Algonquin’s Dorian McMenemy will swim for the Dominican Republic. Page 4

Jason Mastrodonato can be reached at jasonmastrodonato@yahoo.com.

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