London Olympic gymnastics team captain Aly Raisman returned to competition for the first time in two and a half years at last weekend's City of Jesolo Trophy in Jesolo, Italy, just north of Venice. She told us she was nervous, but also excited, about her competitive debut, and that after so much time off, she still wasn't quite up to the level of her 2012 performances. Still, she helped the U.S. team win gold in Italy and earned two individual bronze medals, in the all-around and on floor. We caught up with Raisman after she returned to the States to find out how she felt about the competition -- and found out that even Olympic champions have the occasional really bad day in the gym.
My last workout, right before the competition in Italy, was just bad. There's really no other way to describe it.
When you travel abroad to compete, there's always one day when the time change and the hours of sitting on an airplane hit you. You feel tired and lethargic and a bit out of it. Unfortunately, that day you usually still have to go to workout.
I was feeling the jet lag when I got up to do my first beam routine during the Friday-morning training session at the Trofeo di Jesolo. Women's national team coordinator Martha Karolyi likes to say that the first beam routine is the most important one, because that routine is a good indicator of how you'll actually perform it in the competition. I do this routine well in the gym all the time, but here, I wobbled on my first skill. And the next. And the next. That made me nervous: Was this how it was going to be in the meet? And after, my coach, Mihai, was a bit quiet, which is how he gets when he's nervous.
And things only got worse from there. After that it was on to floor, where on my very first tumbling pass, I hyperextended my left knee. I was lucky; the knee turned out to be fine. But my workout was over; Martha, seeing how stressed I was after beam, simply told my Mihai to take me back to my room so I could get some rest.
I was already nervous about getting back to competition, and my first workout in Italy had been a disaster.
But the good news was, the rough first practice actually got a lot of the nerves out of my system. Even the bad practice was familiar. I had a similar experience at the 2012 Olympic trials, where I had a terrible first day and had to get a pep talk from Martha before I could calm down and focus. And that turned out well (I made the Olympic team).
It always takes a little time to get used to new equipment, since it varies from country to country and sometimes even from meet to meet depending on the manufacturer. It may seem little, but it's a huge thing because you have to adjust your timing on skills. In Jesolo, the floor was bouncy -- like, really, really bouncy. Floor mats always have springs under them to give gymnasts a bit more oomph on their tumbling passes, but this one was even springier than normal. It was so bouncy that I was pinging up in the air at the end of my first tumbling pass, almost out of control. To reduce the risk of rocketing off the floor in competition, Mihai suggested something wild: adding a front layout somersault at the end of my first pass. That would turn it into the same tumbling line I had done at the Olympic Games -- and hadn't done since, even in training.
But we went with it, and somewhat to my surprise, it worked. By the time we actually began competing on Saturday, I was able to do my routines to the best of my abilities right now. I did have a wobble on balance beam and didn't do my hardest vault, but for a first effort, I was satisfied. The priority is always the team competition, which we won by 17 points, a huge margin. When the individual winners were announced, I was very pleased to learn that I had won the all-around bronze, behind world champion Simone Biles and Bailie Key, a real up-and-comer on the U.S. team. During Sunday's event finals, I hit my new floor routine a second time (with a bit of help from that bouncy floor) and finished third on the event as well.
Overall, it was a successful weekend. I roomed with Gabby Douglas, who was also in her first meet back since London, and it was so nice because we found out that as the "old" ladies on the team, we like to go to sleep early and take naps during the day. I'm glad we could be the old, rested ladies together! Some of the younger girls have so much energy, but we really need those afternoon naps between workouts. Simone, who you've probably seen in competition, always behaves as though she's just had about six cups of coffee, even at 3:30 a.m. as we were leaving for the airport. She's not just energetic in the gym -- Simone wakes up at 6 and goes to bed around midnight. I don't know how she does it.
Now that we're back, Gabby and I are both back in our respective gyms, working out the kinks and preparing for our next competition, likely the U.S. Classic in July, a qualifier to the U.S. nationals. I'm relieved to have a meet under my belt, and feeling confident that I can only improve from here. I've started a good foundation to get back to where I was in 2012. In fact, Gabby and I were excited to realize that our respective fourth- and third-place all-around finishes at Jesolo were exactly the same rankings we'd had when we competed here in 2011, the year before the London Olympic Games.
Sounds like a good omen to me!