More than 400 young gymnasts and fans packed an auditorium at The River School in Weston Thursday night to hear two-time Olympian Aly Raisman talk about her new book, Fierce, and to pepper her with their own questions.
The evening began with the 23-year-old Needham native discussing the ups and downs of her career and her love of gymnastics with moderator Matt Johnson, founder of Energy Fitness & Gymnastics in Natick. After the conversation with Johnson, who was one of Raisman’s first coaches, the young fans got the chance to ask their own questions of the gold medalist.
Below, four of the best audience questions, plus answers from the Olympic champion.
Question: I was wondering, obviously it meant a lot to you to be able to compete again a second time — what was it like working with a different group of girls? What was the dynamic like? What was good? What was hard?
Aly Raisman: I think that both Olympic teams were — you know, I’ve been on a lot of gymnastics teams, but those two were my closest and my favorite teams just because we just bonded so much. And I think that if we didn’t bond, we wouldn’t have been as successful. But I think it wouldn’t have been possible for us to not be close because it’s so stressful that you need each other.
I guess what was different with the 2016 team is that I think the 2016 team was a little bit more hyper. Simone [Biles] and Lauren [Hernandez] were right next to me and there was a lot of nights where I had to tell them to be quiet. But they’re just very, very hyper. Where my 2012 team — Kyla [Ross] and McKayla [Maroney] didn’t nap at all. But they weren’t hyper or loud at night, so it’s just funny I guess.
We had so much fun in 2012, but 2016 was more — me and Simone are so close we kind of would, like, jokingly bicker back and forth. I share a funny story in my book about Simone. By accident, she’d made me oatmeal and she put the Rio tap water in my oatmeal. And I ate it, because I didn’t know.
So we were bickering back and forth about that. And it’s just like our friendship is very unique and funny because we have so much fun together, but then she drives me crazy. Because she makes me eat tap water because I’m about to compete at the Olympics — when they tell you a million times not to have the tap water. She was also loud and keeps me up at night, so it was just a funny dynamic and it was a good distraction. Simone also helped me not overthink and be so stressed out. Because she doesn’t over think things. She gets nervous, obviously, she’s human, but she helped me a lot, you know, not worry so much.
Question: Did you look up to one gymnast in particular when you were younger, or did you just look up to them all?
Aly Raisman: I looked up to the U.S. gymnastics team of course. I loved watching them in their patriotic leotards and, you know, obviously watching them in the team final and you could hear the electricity in the stands. It was amazing. But my favorite gymnast was actually a Ukraine gymnast, Lilia Podkopayeva. Her floor routine was my favorite. And I watched her and I wanted to win floor at the Olympics so badly. I wanted to be just like her. And I still actually haven’t even met her, which is funny. You know, I feel like I’ve met so many people in the gymnastics world, but I have yet to meet her, when she was my absolute favorite gymnast.
I also loved Catalina Ponor, and I copied her floor music when I was I think 12 or 13 years old. And then I ended up competing with her at the Olympics and that was very cool, to be able to compete alongside your idol. It was awesome.
Question: You’ve been really vocal with your criticism of USA Gymnastics and the way they’ve been handling things recently. Do you think that you’ll continue to advocate for change as an ambassador in the program itself, or just as a gymnast?
Aly Raisman: Yeah, that’s a good question. Here’s the thing. There’s still a lot of people who are still working there that knew about it and looked the other way. So I feel I can create more change on the outside of it. I don’t think working as an athlete rep will create change because those people are still there. So I can say it until I’m blue in the face, but they’re not going to listen to me. Because they looked the other way for so long. So I feel I can create more change on the outside. And I have a lot more people already just from Sunday night that have been extremely supportive and a lot of powerful people that — I don’t want to say publicly because I don’t want to ruin anything — but a lot of powerful people have reached out saying they want to help me. And I received a tremendous amount of support, so thank you so much.
I’m very passionate about creating change, I’m just now trying to see who to go to that will help me make the biggest change. Hopefully with the new CEO in, she can make the people leave that knew about it because there’s still a lot of people there. I think if you knew about it and you’re still there, I don’t think they can create change because they clearly don’t care.
Question: Are you going to go to the Olympics in 2020?
Aly Raisman: That’s the plan, yes.
Watch Raisman’s moderated discussion below (video may take a moment to load):