Standing before an adoring crowd at the Katz Jewish Community Center in Cherry Hill, N.J., gymnast Aly Raisman, star of the U.S. Olympic Women’s Gymnastics team, paused for a long moment, taking it all in: the cheers of greeting, the packed-to-capacity gymnasium, the faces beaming up at her.
Her look back seemed a mix of great pleasure, wonder and maybe even a bit of awe.
So much has happened to this 18-year-old “nice Jewish girl” from Needham, Mass., in such a short time — unless you factor in the reality that the roots of this moment actually reach back to her toddler days, when Raisman went to a “Mommy and Me” class to help harness the 2-year old’s considerable energy.
She fell in love with gymnastics, knew that she wanted to get to the Olympics, as she told her Cherry Hill audience on Sept. 11, and the rest is history.
Raisman’s 2012 star power comes from her spectacular performance at her Olympic debut in London over the summer, when she won the United States’ first-ever gold medal for floor exercise and was part of the gold-medal winning team dubbed the “Fab Five or Fierce Five.”
The fact that Raisman, captain of the team, performed her gymnastic floor feats to “Hava Nagila,” the iconic and joyful melody, gave her performance an additional emotional pull — and quickly catapulted her to the darling of the Jewish world.
“I love that music,” Raisman told her audience. “Everyone claps and that makes it a lot more fun! It really energizes me.”
The Olympian also won considerable admiration when, in a post-performance news conference, she noted that she would proudly have “supported and respected” a moment of silence in memory of the 11 Israeli Olympians who were murdered by terrorists 40 years before in Munich at the 1972 games.
The International Olympic Committee had famously rejected requests that the 40th anniversary be marked by a moment of silence at the opening ceremonies.
In a personal vein, Raisman spoke of when the dream of the Olympics became a reality for her. “I guess I began to realize the significance of all this when I made the senior nationals team in 2010,” said the gymnast, who also won an Olympics bronze on the balance beam.
“You train your whole life to prepare for this,” she said, noting that it can be exhausting and stressful, but well worth it.
Her appearance was at the Katz JCC’s 3rd Annual Sports Award Dinner, the date of which was changed to accommodate Raisman’s post-Olympic tour schedule, which includes the whirlwind Kellogg’s Tour of Gymnastic Champions. During that tour, at a stop in Indiana, Raisman accidentally rolled off a mat and ended up with bruised knees,but she’s pushed on.
Raisman, who has been catapulted into the international and national spotlight, still seems a bit dazed by it all. “My life has changed totally,” she explained. “Everything is totally different.”
That “everything” would include appearances on The Late Show with David Letterman, The Colbert Report, Good Morning America, even E!’s Fashion Police. She also was the subject of a Comcast Sportsnet documentary following the 2011 World Championships about her quest for Olympic gold.
For her appearance in Cherry Hill, Raisman was looking more like a fashionista than an athlete in a feminine cap-sleeved off-white dress. “I was at a fashion show in New York City earlier today, and now I’m here. It’s all been pretty amazing.”
Raisman, who was named the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame Outstanding Female Jewish High School Scholar-Athlete of the Year, was inspired by Kerri Strug, another Jewish Olympian.
In the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Strug injured her ankle doing a pair of leaps, but completed her last vault, which won her teammates a gold medal. She then withdrew from competition, but made it to the awards ceremony in the arms of her coach, who literally carried her.
To one father in the audience who asked whether he was correct to insist that his daughter go to her gymnastics class before seeing Raisman, her heroine, she responded, “I’d tell her to practice — and never give up.”
Also honored at the Cherry Hill event was Sixers head coach, Doug Collins, along with other local honorees, including Arie Gluck, now-retired longtime director of the URJ Camp Harlam, and a member of Israel’s inaugural team participating in the Olympic Games in 1952 in Helsinki. He competed in the 400- and 800-meter track events.
But it was clearly Raisman who captured hearts this week.
“It was so great to see my daughter’s reaction to what young people can and do accomplish,” said Beth Zive of Cherry Hill, who attended the Sports Award Dinner with her 15-year-old daughter, Sammi.
Perhaps Robin Landsberg, a Cherry Hill mother of four sons who’d avidly watched Raisman’s performances, best summed up the feeling in the crowd at the Sports Award Dinner:
“She’s everybody’s fantasy Jewish daughter. She’s natural, passionate and proudly Jewish. You just have to love her!”