As I walked off the plane at London’s Heathrow Airport, the first image I saw was the Olympic logo. Continuing on through immigration and baggage claim, I couldn’t help but notice the bright and colorful pins on the airport employee’s shirts, which matched their enthusiasm and excitement. I had officially arrived at the 2012 London Olympics.
This being my first Olympics, I was eager to take it all in and experience all that I could. While planning my trip, I knew there was one particular event I had to attend – the Woman’s Gymnastics Team Finals. Growing up, my favorite Olympic sport to watch was Gymnastics. Although swimming has become a close second during the past few Games, Gymnastics still remains the most entertaining and impressive sport to watch. The fact that a woman can flip three times in the air and then land back down perfectly still on a four inch wide beam several feet above the ground is astonishing. This is why my first purchase was a ticket to this event.
This year, for me there was an extra special touch of excitement leading up to the event. One of the “Fab Five”, as they have called themselves, also happened to be Jewish. Alexandra Raisman, ‘Aly’ for short, has quickly risen to become one of the best gymnasts in the world. Only 18 years old, she has achieved more success than most 30 year olds. As an employee for Topps, I met her and her mother last November at the NBC Olympic photo shoot in Los Angeles. She is one of the athletes that is featured in Topps’ Olympic product and rightfully so. I can say that she is as nice and friendly as she appears on television. From the moment I met her, I knew she was destined to become a star.
Walking into the 02 Arena in London, the crowd was buzzing with excitement. The British team had made it into the finals, which was the topic of many conversations. As I listened more carefully I heard many say, “Oh but the American girls are good” and “Those Americans look unbeatable.” Their statements were proven correct from the moment the finals began. Vault was the first event Team USA conquered, followed by the Uneven Bars, the Balance Beam and lastly the Floor Exercise.
The Americans were grouped together with the Russian team for the rotations which added some extra energy to the event as the Russian team is known as a gymnastics powerhouse. After a tremendous Vault, the Americans were in first place by more than a point and a half. The Russians had a strong performance on the Uneven Bars and drew close to the Americans. Less than half a point separated the teams going into the final two rotations. With the Balance Beam next, Team USA was up first and Kyla Ross and Gaby Douglas put up great scores in their performances. If the US wanted to really take a dagger to the Russian team Aly Raisman was going to have to put on a great show. And that she did! My pride as a Jewish American was starting to come out, but nothing would compare to the final event, the Floor Exercise.
As the USA lead grew to 2 points after the balance beam routine, the Americans had the advantage of going after the Russian team for the Floor Exercise event. This was optimal because the girls would know what scores they would have to achieve in order to secure the gold medal. The Russian girls’ disappointing showing on the floor did not hurt Team USA either. It seemed as though it was a chance for the Jewish community in the US to shine as Aly was slated to be the last one to perform her routine. As the music began and she moved about the floor, a familiar song played. As I listened closer I realized that the song she had chosen to use for her Floor Exercise routine, the most important moment of her career, and likely her life, was none other than “Hava Nagila”. That she decided to honor her Jewish heritage on the biggest stage in the world, was very moving to me. After the IOC rejected requests to hold a moment of silence to honor the Israeli athletes slain at the Munich Olympics, this was a perfect way to honor those athletes. I felt the chills throughout my body as the song continued.
Once her routine ended the crowd knew that she only had to score a 10 in order to beat the Russian team. She knocked it out of the park with a whopping 15.8, which more than sealed their gold medal by 6 points. What a fitting end to an incredible day for the Gymnastics’ team. I left the arena feeling an overwhelming sense of pride, not only to be an American, but to be a Jew as well.