Rio 2016: In appreciation of Raisman


The tears began flowing seconds after Aly Raisman finished her floor exercise routine on Thursday.

The 22-year-old from Massachusetts, captain of the United States women's gymnastics team for the second consecutive Olympics, had just nailed the most important 90 seconds of her career. And she knew it.

Athletics in America tend to be framed in exceptionalist terms, in which second place is just the "first loser." That's an appellation that could never be applied to Raisman, who has spent her three days of competition in Rio performing at the absolute maximum of her abilities and was rewarded with a silver medal.

That her team-mate, Simone Biles, happens to simply be better - perhaps the best ever - is an unfortunate bit of timing for Raisman. The correlation is not unlike the longer-running relationship between Ryan Lochte and Michael Phelps. They are the two most decorated male Olympic swimmers of all-time, but Lochte simply never had a chance to overtake the best who ever was. And that is OK.

While Biles in 2016 and Gabby Douglas in 2012 became America's Olympic darlings, Raisman has been the anchor of both squads. Gymnastics teams are collections of individuals rather than cohesive units as in other sports, but there's no denying the influence Raisman has had.

Though she admitted during an interview earlier this year that she was "freaking out" ahead of the London Games four years ago because of her inexperience at that level, she was named captain of a youthful U.S. fivesome because she has a way of projecting calm. Even if that facade belies what's happening inside.

"There are some nights where I wake up sweating because I have a nightmare about the Olympics," she said recently. "You have one shot and you want it to go well. Everyone works really hard and you want it more than anything, you work so hard for it."

Whatever reprise of those fears Raisman might have felt Wednesday in Rio were not borne out once she hit the mat for the all-around final. Raisman's score was second only to Biles' on the vault, balance beam and floor exercise. Only a relatively shaky uneven bars routine that left her with the 14th-best mark on that apparatus put her in danger of losing silver to Russia's Aliya Mustafina.

Mustafina was the gymnast who kept Raisman from joining Douglas on the podium after the 2012 all-around competition, taking bronze thanks to a tie-break and leaving the American in the wings, wondering if she'd get another chance.

"I've been in five all-around finals, and each time I've been sucked off the podium due to mistakes," Raisman said Thursday. "Making mistakes is devastating. The mistake in London has been on my mind every day. I've got my redemption after all those setbacks."

The path to that redemption has been clear since Raisman arrived in Brazil, with only Biles posting better scores in the qualifying rounds Sunday and team final Tuesday. When Raisman walked to the floor exercise mat in the centre of Rio Olympic Arena on Thursday, she needed a 14.000 or better to get past Mustafina for the silver - a number well within her grasp on any normal day.

Raisman left the floor in tears before composing herself to await her score. It flashed up as 15.433, the best of her three floor routines in Rio, and all that was left to do was hug and congratulate Biles after she became Team USA's fourth consecutive women's all-around champion.

Then it was time for Raisman to listen as her national anthem played, gazing up a step on the podium at Biles - and no one else in the world.