On the final day of Olympic gymnastics, American Aly Raisman broke through—winning bronze on the balance beam and then gold, decisively, on the floor. Till now, Raisman had been mainly celebrated for her consistency and leadership: a steady competitor under pressure, with a record of team success and individual fourth-place finishes.
But she has grown into much more than that. Raisman brings a particular athleticism to the floor: there's a towering height to her somersaults, a solidity to her landings. And that power is under control; she's not one of those gymnasts who give me acid reflux, capable of brilliance but just as likely to implode in competition.
So-called purists, the ones who go on and on about the "end of artistic gymnastics," hate her muscular performances. She may not be elegant, but there's more than one way to do gymnastics. And it's not as if any of the modern crop of gymnasts can really dance.
Raisman had beefed up her degree of difficulty this year, yet was still finishing behind teammates Jordyn Wieber and Gabby Douglas in all-around competition. Even though she won national titles on beam and floor this year—meaning she's plausibly the best American on half of the events—few people saw her as a major threat to win individual medals in London.
But at the Olympics, things seemed to change. Starting in the preliminaries, when she grabbed one of the two all-around spots, Raisman started getting the notice she had worked so long for. In the team final, she anchored the squad on her best events, beam and floor, helping lead them to the team gold.
Despite this newfound confidence and limelight, Raisman reverted to second-banana status in the individual all-around. After uncharacteristically faltering on the beam, she landed in a tie with Russian Aliya Mustafina for third place, but ended up on the wrong side of the tiebreak rules and was bumped from the podium. Fourth once more.
At the end of Tuesday's beam finals, she appeared to be in fourth again—behind Romanian veteran Catalina Ponor, who had done well but suffered a big break in the middle of her routine. The American coaches, however, challenged Raisman's start value and filed an inquiry. (In gymnastics, you're only allowed to question the difficulty score, not the execution deductions.)
After going to the replay, the judges restored a tenth of a point of difficulty, which pushed her into a tie with Ponor. This time, Raisman found herself on the right side of the tiebreaking rule—higher execution score wins—and claimed her first individual medal of the Games.
Obviously buoyed by this result, Raisman nailed every pass in her floor routine including the tricky, mind-bending one that begins with a one-and-a-half twisting somersault, continues onto an Arabian double front, and ends with a punch layout front. This pass had been giving her trouble in London—she took out the final skill in team and all around finals—but she did the full thing perfectly on Tuesday.
The BBC commentator hilariously said that Raisman used "Cossack music to leap ahead of the Russian," referring to her "Hava Nagila" routine. (Did someone tell the BBC commentators that Jews, historically, haven't been fans of the Cossacks?) Raisman posted a 15.6, the highest floor score at these Games, but had to wait through several competitors to see if it would stand.
No one could top it. Pre-meet favorite Sandra Izbasa, the defending Olympic champion on floor, fell. Ponor nailed her opening pass but ended up with the silver. Mustafina performed beautifully but landed in third. It was Raisman's gold and hers alone—giving her more medals than any of her teammates. No tiebreaker necessary.
For a handy master schedule of every Olympic event, click here.
Dvora Meyers is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Slate, Tablet and elsewhere. She writes about gymnastics and Judaism at Unorthodox Gymnastics, and she is the author of Heresy on the High Beam: Confessions of an Unbalanced Jewess. She blogs about woman-y stuff over at The Anti-Girlfriend.