MIAMI — In the months since 18-year-old American artistic gymnast Alexandra “Aly” Raisman won two gold medals and one bronze at the London Olympics, she has been adored as an all-American girl.
She’s graced the cover of Sports Illustrated, appeared on the major TV talk shows, and earned millions for her endorsements with Ralph Lauren, Pandora Jewelry, Poland Spring and others.
Raisman has also won a special place in the hearts of Israelis and Jews worldwide, as much for what she said as what she accomplished at the Olympics.
Following the medal ceremony after winning gold for her floor exercise – to the accompaniment of the Jewish folk song Hava Negilah Raisman said:
“The floor music wasn’t intentional, but having it played on the 40th anniversary is special, and winning the gold means a lot to me. If there had been a moment’s silence, I would have supported it and respected it.”
Raisman’s words were in reference to the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) refusal to honour the 11 Israeli Olympians murdered at the 1972 Games with a moment of silence at the opening ceremony of the London Olympics.
Raisman is currently on a 34-city American tour with her U.S. teammates, but she flew to Miami recently on an off night to be honoured by the Women’s International Zionist Organization (WIZO) at a fundraising dinner attended by more than 400 supporters.
“Tonight is an honour I will never forget. I feel so proud and bonded with everyone here to support Israel and the wonderful work of WIZO. I am American, an Olympian and also a Jew who feels so elated for having my dreams come true,” Raisman told the crowd.
“It is exciting to have everything I wanted as a young girl come true. To also have the opportunity of showing how proud I am of being Jewish and standing up for what I believe is right is an honour I will never forget,” she added.
“Aly is very proud and upfront about being Jewish. Nobody will ever forget her message for generations to come. Aly showed how very integrated her Jewish heritage is in everything she does,” said Rabbi Keith Stern of Temple Beth Avodah of Newton, Mass., who has known Raisman since she was three years old.
“Aly inspired so many with her bravery in standing up to the IOC. I had a letter from the son of a 94-year-old Holocaust survivor in Warsaw. She watched Aly on television at the Olympics and was astonished and moved both by Aly’s performance to Hava Nagilah and her words in honour of the slain Israeli athletes,” added Rabbi Stern.
According to Rabbi Stern, his congregation has received thousands of requests for Raisman to speak at synagogues, Jewish day schools and Jewish fundraising organizations in Canada, the United States and Israel.
The honours keep mounting for Raisman: Israel’s minister of Diaspora affairs has invited Raisman and her family to tour the country as his personal guests; next April, she will be inducted into the National Jewish Sports Hall Of Fame in New York, and she’ll be a shoo-in to be inducted into the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in Israel when she retires.
“I have absolutely no plans to retire yet. I have to train, compete and prepare for the 2016 Olympics and build for my team to win gold again. I have to stay focused, and will go to college after I retire,” she said.
Born and raised in Needham, Mass., Raisman first took up gymnastics at age two in a Mommy and Me class. By the time she was eight, she was identified as an elite athlete and worked under coach Mihai Brestyan, who has remained with her ever since.
As captain, Raisman led the American team to a gold medal at the 2011 World Artistic Championships in Tokyo.
Her maturity and experience as captain of the five-member U.S. Olympic team, nicknamed the “Fab Five” and “Fierce Five,” led Raisman to win three medals, more than any other teammate.
She was especially impressive in the floor exercise program, becoming the first American ever in her sport to win gold in that category.
She began her feat with a high spring and snap, following up with impressive dance steps and concluded with a thunderous run and a perfectly timed split jump – all with Hava Nagilah playing in the background, lifting her spirits and building the crowd to a frenzy.
Raisman outdistanced her opponents with a near-perfect 15.6 score – her best tally ever in the most important moment in her life.
“My gold medal performance is the best performance I have ever done. That’s what I worked for all my life. I just want to rejoice,” said Raisman, upon learning that she won the gold medal.
Translated into English, Hava Negilah means, “let us rejoice,” and Jews worldwide will certainly rejoice in Raisman’s Olympic glory for generations to come.