On a chilly February morning at 8:30 a.m., Brestyan's American Gymnastics Club in Burlington, Massachusetts, feels cavernous and empty. But beyond the piles upon piles of padded mats that greet you at the entrance, Olympian Aly Raisman is already hard at work.
As pop songs play quietly in the background, Raisman warms up with rope climbs, splits and leaps. During the four-hour practice that follows, she runs through her routines with her coaches, Mihai and Silvia Brestyan, who look on from the side and offer sparse comments. Her focus on the routines at hand is only briefly interrupted by the need to fix her trademark bun.
The 21-year-old's single-minded determination comes as no surprise. As captain of the London 2012 Olympic team, Raisman helped lead the squad to gold and became the first U.S. woman to win Olympic gold on floor. If she makes the team that heads to Rio in August, Raisman will be the oldest American gymnast to compete on an Olympic team in 12 years.
The final Olympic roster won't be announced until after the trials in July, but Raisman's first test this year will be at the City of Jesolo Trophy competition on March 19 and 20 in Jesolo, Italy. It's a small international meet, but the U.S. team uses it to give veterans more competition practice and to test new senior gymnasts. Many of the top candidates for the five-member Olympic team will be competing in Jesolo, with the notable exception of three-time world all-around champion Simone Biles, who is taking a much-deserved rest.
If all goes well this year, Raisman is on the short list for a Rio spot -- but she trains like she's an underdog. After a grueling practice, she sat down with us to share her motivation mantras, what's different this time around and just how scary gymnastics can be.
When did you know that you wanted to continue competing and training for another Olympics?
When I competed in 2012 I knew that I wanted to come back but I also knew that I wanted a break. I started gymnastics when I was 2 years old so my whole life it's been basically all I've ever done. I definitely needed a break, but I knew in the back of my mind that I wanted to come back. I always felt like I could accomplish more in the sport.
What was that year off after London like?
The year after the Olympics was so much fun. I got to do our national gymnastics tour, which was three months long, and then I got to do Dancing With the Stars, which was so awesome. I really felt like I came out of my shell and became more comfortable doing interviews. I've traveled all over the world since I was 15 but I really didn't get to see much, so I think I matured a lot just from traveling all over the U.S. and meeting different kinds of people and doing different events.
What's been difficult about training for a second Olympics?
Sometimes I say I know a little bit too much. The first time around at the Olympics, I think I was a lot more innocent, in the sense that you don't really realize how many people watch the Olympics. You try to convince yourself that there aren't a lot of people watching and then you see how much your life changes from it. I try to not think about that too much. You kind of have to brainwash yourself to think it's just a regular competition and that not a lot of people are watching.
How do you stay motivated on a day-to-day basis?
I think about being at the Olympics and how much I want it. Every day counts. It's the mental part that's really important -- you want to look back and feel like you gave it your all with no regrets. I can look back on 2012 and know that I gave it my all with no regrets and I want to have the same feeling when I compete this time around.
If you visualize one thing about Rio, what is it?
Competing in the team final with my teammates. That's the most exciting part. One of my favorite moments from the last Olympics was walking out on the first day of competition. I remember my coach Mihai and I looked back at each other, like we couldn't believe that we were actually there.
When you're waiting to march out for the competition -- and you peek out and see that there are thousands of people in the stands and that you're finally at the Olympics -- it's the coolest thing ever. But also the scariest because you know that you have to compete and you hope that all your hard work has paid off.
What do you tell yourself in the moment to stay calm?
I try to just think positive thoughts and tell myself that I can do it and think about the corrections that my coaches give to me. I think about just doing it as a normal routine like every day in the gym. I think that the less you think in those situations, the better, because you don't want to overthink it. It's just one routine out of the bajillion that you've done every single day.
Is there anything you think people tend to overlook about gymnastics?
Gymnastics is scary. I'm afraid of a lot of the stuff I do. Especially when you're tired, if you land short it hurts your ankles and if you fall or wipe out it definitely freaks you out a little bit. You just have to keep telling yourself that you'll be fine. But I think that comes with experience, too. It's not something that develops overnight.
What do you do for fun?
Right now, I literally just do gymnastics. Even on the weekends I'm in bed by 8 o'clock. I have less than six months until the Olympics, so I'm just doing everything I possibly can to get there. I was in Las Vegas over the weekend because my coaches were judging a competition there -- and I think I'm the only 21-year-old to ever go to Vegas and go to sleep at 7 o'clock at night (because of the time change.) I know that at the Olympics I'll be 22 and then after that, when I have a little break from gymnastics, I'll be able to relax and have some fun. Right now, this is the priority.