Last week, as my husband and I sat on our couch and watched the Individual All-Around gymnastics finals in Rio, it was all waterworks—from start to finish. Watching Simone Biles and Aly Raisman balance, vault, and tumble their way to the top of the podium left us breathless.
So much has been said of Simone Biles and her stratospheric talent—how she makes death-defying tumble passes and unimaginably difficult vault routines look nearly effortless. Biles is not only one in a million, she is one in seven billion. But it is Aly Raisman, teammate and competitor extraordinaire, who captured our hearts. It is Aly who brought us to tears. It is Aly who, at the end of the day, truly inspires us.
I can’t explain it, but when I watch Aly, I feel like I am watching my own daughter. (But let’s be honest, I have nothing on her real mother, the incredible Lynn Faber, whose incomparable love and concern for her daughter is on display at every competition and has now been broadcast for all the world to see.) When I watch Aly, my palms get sweaty, my heart beats out of my chest, and I feel like I have to remind myself to breathe. I want her to succeed. I want to see her achieve all she has set out to do.
Last Thursday night, as I watched her fulfill her longtime, hard-fought Olympic dream with such confidence and grace, beauty and power, I couldn’t help but get choked up. As she burst into tears, so did I. She had clenched the silver medal; she had risen above the disappointment of missing out four years ago; she had proven herself after so many had counted her out. Aly accomplished more than anyone had thought possible. At that moment, I was so, so proud of her.
When I look at Aly Raisman, I think to myself, I want to raise my daughter (and my sons!) to be like her. I want them to grow up looking to Aly as a role model and a shining example of how to act and relate in this world. Aly is a hero. But it isn’t only about her ridiculous athletic prowess or her astonishing aptitude for all things related to gymnastics. It isn’t even about the medals that she has won and (likely will continue to win). It is about the person she has become.
Aly is a fighter, in the very best sense of the word. Four years ago, she missed out on a medal due to a mystifyingly incomprehensible tiebreak rule. She literally watched the bronze medal slip out of her hands. It was gut wrenching to watch; I can’t imagine how much more so to live. And yet, in the wake of that disappointment, Aly decided she wanted to try again. Even though the road back would be harder than the first.
Even though at 22, many would consider her to be too old to viably compete (her teammates all lovingly call her “grandma,” in fact). Even though the odds were not in her favor. But none of that deterred her; none of that stood in her way. Aly clawed and climbed and trained herself back into fighting form, and look at her now. She surpassed everybody’s expectations. She even surpassed her 2012 self.
Aly is a mensch. In her capacity as team captain (this year as in 2012), Aly leads with love and compassion. She is constantly rooting for her teammates, offering hugs and high fives, even as she is competing against them. She is supportive and she is strong, embracing her friends when they have faltered and shouting words of encouragement when they need it most.
There was a beautiful moment at the end of the team competition when a Chinese gymnast approached Aly to offer her congratulations and Aly said something like, “I am going to give you a hug!” It was amazing to see! I was in awe of her generosity. If only all athletes of her caliber could be so bighearted.
And maybe most importantly, Aly is a proud Jew. Aly represents not only the very best of America but the very best of the Jewish community. Four years ago, she tumbled to “Hava Nagila,” proclaiming not just with words, but with actions, her abiding affiliation and deep connection to Judaism and the Jewish people.
She stood up in support of the moment of silence in remembrance of the 11 Jewish athletes murdered in Munich. Aly didn’t have to add her voice to that debate, but she did unabashedly. Aly speaks of her Judaism freely and publicly. She makes it known that Judaism is important to her, that it means something to her, and she carries her legacy with her onto the world stage.
For all these reasons and more, I look up to Aly Raisman, too. She is truly a role model for the ages, and for all ages. And as much as she has accomplished already, I believe there is so much more she has yet to do. I can’t wait to see what’s next for this superstar. Kol hakavod, Aly! May you round off, back handspring, and double back until 120!