Exclusive Algemeiner Interview: Olympic Jewish Gymnast Aly Raisman Talks Medals, Fashion and Calls for Minute’s Silence
by Ezriel Gelbfish
Alexandra “Aly” Raisman is a Jewish American gymnast slated to compete in the London Olympics later this month. Rated one of the world’s top gymnasts, Aly won a gold medal in team and a bronze medal in floor at the 2011 World Championship, and qualified for this year’s five-member Olympic gymnastics team in third place overall. In an exclusive interview with The Algemeiner, Aly talks about her gymnastics, her Jewish heritage, the minute’s silence controversy and why she doesn’t eat ethnic Jewish food.
EG: Hey Aly, good to meet you. So what influences a good Jewish girl to launch a career in gymnastics?
ALY: Mostly, as long as I could remember, I always loved gymnastics and wanted to aspire to get better and better. I always wanted to go to the Olympics and I watched the 1996 Olympics when I was 8 or nine 9 old and I used to repeat it over and over in my room.
EG: As you are Jewish, has your Jewish heritage and background influenced that at all? What role has that played in your career selection?
ALY: Well, I mean, my mom did high school gymnastics and my dad was also really athletic, he did hockey and baseball. They wanted me to be active and just love whatever I did and everything that I do, I always try to give 100%. I don’t know, I just had a lot of energy when I was younger and I really enjoyed gymnastics, it just kind of clicked.
EG: What motivated you to pick the song Hava Nagila specifically to perform your floor routine to?
ALY: Well as you said, I’m Jewish, so I thought it would be really nice to use Hava Nagila. And its a song the whole crowd can clap to, so for Olympic trials, there are about 20,000 people in the arena, and all of them clapping is an amazing feeling and it gives me a kind of extra boost of confidence and energy. And I just really like the music a lot, my parents found it and I wanted something that was kind of like folk music and that other people could relate to.
EG: Do you participate actively in Jewish community, Hebrew school or temple, things like that?
ALY: I did have a bat mitzvah, I’ve just been training so much that I am not going to temple right now, but when I was younger, I did and I liked to participate, and liked the holidays with my family. When I am not at workout we do celebrate the holidays together. My sister actually has her bat mitzvah next May.
EG: Well Mazal Tov on that. So you can celebrate the holidays despite your training lifestyle? Latkes are very fattening….
ALY: No, I don’t really eat the food, but I’m there and I try to spend time with my family. I actually had to be away a couple of times on the holidays, like last October I was in Japan, so I had to compete during the Jewish holiday. But it’s still just nice to be with my family when I can. Even if I don’t get to really eat the foods.
EG: Your training regimens must have a strong influence on your social life. What’s that like with a seven-hour daily training regimen?
ALY: Well, I’ve been training so much my whole life, but definitely this year has been a lot more than I’m used to. I had to finish my senior year online, but I still got to go to prom, which was really nice. And I speak with my friends I mean, on Wednesday, a couple of my friends stopped by, just to hangout for a little bit, so I still talk to my school friends a lot and they are really supportive. When I got home on Monday night [from the Olympic trials], they were all at the airport, so that was really a surprise and it is just really nice to have them there.
EG: Okay. You won the Pearl D. Mazer Jewish Hall of Fame’s Jewish Female High School Scholar Athlete Award. What other Jewish athletes inspire you?
ALY: I don’t really think there are that many Jewish athletes out there, so it is really an honor to be a Jewish athlete and be able to go to the Olympics. I’m not 100% sure but I think that Kerri Strug might have been Jewish. I’m not sure, I have to make sure. She was on the 1996 US women’s team that won Gold. I could be wrong, but I think she was Jewish. But other than that there are really not that many.
EG: We watched your videos and would give you a medal. What will you do when you win in London, God willing?
ALY: Well, if I win a medal, I think that I will definitely keep it somewhere really safe, but also somewhere where I can look at it a lot so I can be reminded of my hard work and all the years that I put into it.
EG: Are you going to be competing more after this year’s Olympics?
ALY: I definitely do want to compete more in 2016, it is definitely in the back of mind and also the 2013 World Championship, but after the Olympics, I will take a break because I’ve been working so hard training this past year. Its really been a tough year with all this training so I will definitely take some time off after this summer.
EG: What do you see for yourself after your gymnastics career?
ALY: I’m really into fashion and it would be fun to have my own workout line, maybe not by myself but with a partner, or have a jewelry line also. I really enjoy clothes, maybe I would design leotards (laughs). That would be really fun for me.
EG: Have you ever experienced hostility for being Jewish or incorporating Israel into your routine?
ALY: No, not at all. No one really cares about that because the ultimate goal is to be the best that I can be and to win for the team. There are no politics in picking the team its really about who is the best and who can bring back the glory home. Everyone is really great to each other, its never happened to me that I was treated differently because of that.
EG: What’s your take on the minute of silence for Munich that the IOC (International Olympic Committee) has nixed?
ALY: I think the service would be a really great thing that I’d want to take part of, obviously what happened is really devastating and will hopefully never happen again. But the ceremony would be very nice to commemorate what happened, and I think they should do it definitely, for the families of the people and everyone.
EG: Final queston: You’re known for your consistency under pressure. How do you keep your head while the whole world is watching?
ALY: Well, I don’t think about that. I just try to block out everything and think about how much hard work I put into my routine. When I get to the competition I try to stay in the moment, these experiences are once in a lifetime, and I want to have good memories of them and cherish every moment. I’m very lucky to have these experiences, not a lot of people get them, and I just want to hold on to them and remember them.
EG: Thanks so much Aly and a hearty good luck with the Olympics this month! We are all rooting for you.