During the 2012 summer Olympics in London, many Jews watched in awe as Alexandra “Aly” Raisman, 18, captain of the U.S. women’s gymnastics team, earned a gold medal on her floor routine. Her victory was made even sweeter as she performed to the Jewish folk song “Hava Nagila.”
She was an overnight sensation, vaulting to instant fame along with the rest of her teammates, earning an overall team gold medal.
For Jews in America, and across the globe, her work struck a chord as it fell on the 40th anniversary of the Munich massacre, when Palestinian terrorists murdered 11 Israeli athletes and coaches during the 1972 summer Olympics.
Yet, beneath all of the excitement of her gold-medal winning routine, her choice of song, and the coinciding of the anniversary of a great tragedy, it was just a nice Jewish girl out on the mats, having fun.
A Unique Approach
Raisman, a Needham, Mass., native, began gymnastics as a young girl, but it was at age 10 when she arrived at Brestyan’s American Gymnastics Club in Burlington, Mass., that things turned up a notch. She started training under veteran gymnastics coaches Mihai Brestyan and his wife, Silvia. The native Romanians have been involved with gymnastics for 40 years. It was Silvia (who is Jewish) who suggested the music to accompany Raisman’s floor routine.
Raisman came to Brestyan looking to expand her abilities and further her gymnastics career. Brestyan described young Raisman as “springy” and eager to do as much as possible. After coaching her for some time, Brestyan began to get an inkling that Raisman might be his next star pupil, only after another Olympic hopeful, Alicia Sacramone.
Sacramone also hails from the Boston area and found her way to Brestyan’s gym. Under his tutelage Sacramone became one of the most decorated U.S. gymnasts of all time.
Brestyan’s Olympic resume included not only coaching Sacramone, but also serving as the coach of the Israeli gymnastics team in the 1990s. Combined with his wife’s experience as an international judge, Raisman had the advantage of an experienced bench to get through the Olympic trials and onto London.
“It was one of my goals to make sure they believed in her,” Brestyan said referring to the organizers of Team U.S.A. “It’s not the best to be in every event. You need to be the most consistent. You need to be everywhere.”
Brestyan stressed Raisman’s versatility was key to making the team. His strategy was to have Raisman ready to perform at the highest level in her best events but also showing she was capable to compete amongst the world’s elite in whatever spot the team might need her.
The idea of displaying Raisman’s versatility was necessary because of the extensive talent pool in the U.S. gymnastics community. No one was guaranteed a spot on the team.
Leading the Team to Gold
Despite her performances leading up to and during Olympic qualifiers, Raisman wasn’t a big name to the general public. Even people at her hometown synagogue, Temple Beth Avodah in Newtown, Mass., hadn’t heard there was a star in their midst.
“Not everyone had heard about her talent,” said Rabbi Keith Stern. Of course, that changed very quickly in days leading up to London 2012. “As soon as the word went out everyone was very excited.”
Going into the competition, Raisman and Brestyan tempered their expectations, but they felt that the floor routine was where she could make the greatest impact.
“The biggest dream was to win the floor,” said Brestyan. “She was just doing the most clean routine.”
Before Raisman would showcase her talents on the floor, she helped Team USA win the gold medal in the all-around competition, coaching her teammates along the way.
“Aly is the oldest child (she has three younger siblings), and she most definitely carries with her the first-born imperative, making sure her brother and sisters are taken care of,” said Stern. “And she’s the same way with her teammates.”
When the time came for her strongest event, her clean floor routine paid off. Raisman became the first woman in U.S. history to earn the gold medal in the floor exercise.
“Comfortable in her own skin as a Jew”
Though not entirely intentional, Raisman played “Hava Nagila” in the face of an International Olympic Committee that denied a moment of silence during the opening ceremony to honor the fallen athletes, coaches and referees of the 1972 Munich Olympics.
“It never occurred to her it would be vaguely problematic,” said Stern. “Is it safe? Is it smart?”
These are questions that never crossed Raisman’s mind, according to Stern.
According to Brestyan, “Hava Nagila” was not Raisman’s first choice. He says that Silvia and Raisman did a lot of searching before eventually landing on the popular Jewish folk tune.
“We tried to find one that fit for her character, her personality,” said Brestyan. “You want to pull in the [crowd] on the routine. The clapping helps keep the rhythm.”