As captain of the 2012 and 2016 U.S. women’s Olympic gymnastics teams — the “Fierce Five” in London and the “Final Five” in Rio de Janeiro — Aly Raisman led the teams to victory, and won multiple medals in her own right, realizing dreams she’d been working toward most of her life.
“The opportunity to compete in the Olympics is not a given for any athlete,” Raisman says. “In gymnastics there are so few spots available on the Olympic team and it is so competitive. But I think one of the best things about being a kid is the belief that anything is possible, and that no dream is too big.”
Raisman, who began practicing gymnastics at just 2 years old, emerged from London and Rio as one of just two Americans to win back-to-back Olympic gold medals and as the second-most decorated Olympic gymnast in American history. In doing so, the Needham, Mass., native didn’t just become a household name — she and her teammates became national heroes.
But Raisman’s heroics extend beyond her physical prowess on the floor and beam.
In 2017, USA Gymnastics (USAG) became embroiled in a child sexual-assault scandal in which hundreds of gymnasts came forward to reveal they had been sexually assaulted by gym owners, coaches, and program staff. At the center of the allegations was USAG national team doctor Larry Nassar and the officials who ignored complaints from children and parents that spanned nearly two decades.
Raisman joined the chorus of survivors who bravely said, “Me too.” Even after Nassar’s sentencing in 2018, she remained standing to speak out, “Never again.”
“It was important for me to speak up because USA Gymnastics and the United States Olympic Committee were sweeping the issue under the rug,” she recalls. “I never expected to receive the support that I got, and I will always be grateful for that. The support has helped me find strength and confidence to continue speaking out.”
Raisman, now 26, no longer competes but continues to lend her powerful voice and seemingly boundless work ethic to young gymnasts, with the hope of ensuring that they will be safe from predators in the sport they love.
Through a partnership with Darkness to Light (www.d2l.org), a nation-wide advocacy group focused on preventing child sexual abuse, Raisman in 2018 kicked off a campaign called “Flip the Switch,” designed to support the gymnastics community and to begin work on a comprehensive program to help young athletes everywhere.
Ending child sexual abuse must begin with adults taking responsibility, says Raisman. To that end, Darkness to Light offers a training program that teaches adults how to recognize, prevent, and react responsibly to child sexual abuse.
“The gymnastics world, from my view, was a combination of a lot of love, determination, passion, challenge, frustration, pain, not feeling good enough, hard work, tears of sadness and joy, and everything in between,” she says.
“At times it was my favorite place in the world, and other times it caused me a lot of pain. I often wish I could go back in time and tell myself that the moment will pass and everything will be OK. I was so hard on myself. To this day I love gymnastics and am passionate about making the sport a fun and safe environment.”
Q&A With Aly Raisman
Experience Life | What role did speaking out about child sexual abuse within USA Gymnastics play in your own personal healing?
Aly Raisman | Being so public about the abuse when I hadn’t come to terms with it myself was difficult. Continually talking about the abuse publicly definitely felt like a wound that wouldn’t heal. I had a hard time moving forward.
At times it felt like I was sinking but I made sure to talk to someone. I started doing guided meditations, gardening, practicing gratitude, to name a few, and those things really helped. The kindness I received from people in my life and strangers helped me more than I can ever say. I feel so lucky.
If you are struggling, I recommend telling someone. When I feel scared or alone, talking to someone helps. Feeling supported is so important. You can talk to a friend, family member, therapist, teacher — anyone who you feel will help you feel safe.
EL | You have become an advocate for young people, with work focusing on preventing child sexual abuse in sports. Can you say more about the work you do?
AR | Child sexual abuse is an adult problem, not the child’s. I encourage any adult, especially those who interact with children, to take Darkness to Light’s training program, Stewards of Children. The industry-leading program teaches adults how to recognize, prevent, and react responsibly to child sexual abuse.
We launched the #FlipTheSwitch campaign to minimize any barriers that may prevent people from taking the course, so the online course is now available for free when you use the code FLIPTHESWITCH. If you haven’t taken the course yet, I encourage you to do so.
EL | Your advocacy work also includes mental health and mindfulness. Can you talk about that evolution and how mindfulness fits into your life, personally and professionally?
AR | When I was competing, I focused so much time and energy on my physical health, but very little — if any — on my mental well-being. I didn’t have the knowledge or tools to help manage my mental health.
While I am still learning and finding tools to help me cope, I believe the pathway to healing takes a lot of patience and practice. I love learning about ways to feel better and take care of myself and others. I am passionate about helping others heal. I recognize I can’t help if I don’t figure it out on my own first.
EL | Tell us about your partnership with the meditation and mindfulness app Sanvello. How did that come about?
AR | As an ambassador for the Sanvello app, I have recorded my own guided meditation, and I am in the process of creating more content, which I am really excited about. I enjoy doing guided meditations — they have helped me so much that I decided to record some of my own. The app offers therapy, coaching, guided meditations, guided journeys, journaling, mood tracking, check-ins, and more. Healing isn’t one-size-fits-all, so I appreciate that there are so many different options.
EL | What is your connection to gymnastics today?
AR | I don’t practice gymnastics anymore. I love watching gymnastics from decades ago on YouTube. It is fun to see how the sport has changed over time. There are so many talented gymnasts today, and I look forward to seeing their journey in the sport.
EL | What are you most passionate and excited about these days?
AR | On my off days, I enjoy spending time with a friend, reading, walking outside, gardening — anything that is relaxing and calming. I am fortunate to still continue to be very busy, but I make sure that each day I am doing some form of self-care to take care of my body and mind. I encourage anyone who is interested to take at least five minutes for themselves each day.
I am passionate about preventing abuse and helping people heal, so I also devote time and energy into those causes.
EL | What are your top healthy habits? Do these look different now versus when you were training and competing in elite gymnastics?
AR | I prioritize my mental health much more now than I did when I was training. I simply didn’t understand mental health like I do now — it wasn’t normalized or part of the conversation.
I believe it is important to take time for ourselves each day. Five minutes is better than nothing. I start every morning saying three things I am grateful for, which helps me stay present.
EL | What is the most notable lesson you’ve learned about healing from trauma?
AR | The importance of listening to my mind and body. Recognizing when I feel anxious and understanding where that is stemming from so I can get to the root of the issue. I have also learned the importance of practicing self-compassion. Oftentimes we are harsher on ourselves than we would be to a loved one or a friend. I try to remember to treat myself like someone I care about.