NEEDHAM, Mass. — Even though David Jensen returned to Needham, Mass., from the Sarajevo 1984 Olympic Winter Games without a hockey medal, his hometown still threw a parade in his honor.
“This is phenomenal, I’ve never seen anything like this,” the former Hartford Whaler and Washington Capitol said Sunday afternoon as throngs of Needham residents at the start of the “Rally for Aly.”
“I had a parade in 1984 here in Needham. It was in February; it was pretty cold. I was a high school kid back then; it wasn’t like this, nothing like this."
Then again, the town has never had the likes of Aly Raisman before.
Since returning from the London 2012 Olympic Games with two gold medals (team event and floor exercise), a bronze (balance beam) and her newly minted status as an international sports star, the gymnast has signed an endorsement deal with Poland Springs (a bottled water company), worked the national talk show circuit and tossed the first pitch at Fenway Park.
The festivities in her hometown decidedly were more old-fashioned as an estimated crowd of 5,000 watched the 18-year-old U.S. Olympic women’s gymnastics team captain parade from Town Hall to a gazebo in a large park at the foot of the town’s high school.
“I just wanted to thank you guys all for coming,” Raisman said. “It means so much, I can’t thank you enough. I don’t know what to say, I’m pretty much speechless. For all of you that came out here it seriously means so much to me.
“I worked so hard this whole year, and it’s been the best summer of my life so thank you all so much and I love you all and I hope I made you all proud.”
Raisman’s parents, Lynn and Rick, who have become well known in their own right for their enthusiastic cheering in London, also addressed the crowd.
“It’s unbelievable all the support, just driving through the town, seeing all the signs, people coming up to us everywhere,” Rick Raisman said. “There’s just so many people to thank, we don’t even know what to say; we’re speechless how incredible this is for our family. We’re so proud of Aly, obviously. The police, the fire department, everyone at the town hall has put so much time and effort into this, so you know we can’t thank you enough. We’re just so happy.”
The parade, which the town has been planning for about six weeks, was the culmination of a nearly two months of Rasiman-mania in Needham.
She was the star attraction, but the town also honored Olympians and Paralympians with ties to Needham, including Jensen, Olympic rower Seth Bauer, Paralympian Pam Fernandes, and two other Olympians, Bethany Hart and Mary Mazzio.
Bauer, the coxswain of the 1988 U.S. bronze-medal-winning men’s eight rowing team, is a 20-year resident of Needham. Fernandes is a three-time Paralympic cycling medalist and the first Paralympian to receive the U.S. Olympic Spirit Award. Hart was on the 2006 U.S. bobsled team, and Mazzio rowed on the 1992 double sculls team.
“This is awesome,” said Mazzio, who grew up in Needham and finished 11th in rowing in 1992. “It’s phenomenal, and that fact that the town has totally rallied behind her is wonderful. It’s really fun... It’s so hard to train for all those years so it’s wonderful people understand what Aly might have gone through.”
Needham Board of Selectmen chairman Jerry Wasserman said Raisman has brought the community together.
“The atmosphere for the last few months has been electric in Needham,” Wasserman said. “People are very, very excited. It means a lot. It means a lot to have somebody that was born and brought up in Needham to succeed this way. And she is, I believe, first of all a role model to all our kids but especially the young women.
“The message isn’t just to do well in the Olympics; the message is ‘If you work as hard as she has and stay focused you can do what you want to do.’ ”
Hordes of young girls attended the parade, including a 14-year-old local gymnast, Grace McFarland, who munched on cookies while holding pictures of the U.S. gymnastics team just before the parade started.
“Yeah I love Aly,” McFarland said. “She’s my inspiration, and I look up to her.”
At the end of the parade route, a giant American flag hung from a towering crane. An ice sculpture of the Olympic rings melted next to the gazebo where the speeches were given and several groups gave performances, including young gymnasts from Raisman’s first gym, Exxcel Gymnastics and Climbing of Newton.
“It’s like stepping into the past. I feel like I’m in the 1950s the way the whole town turned out,” Bauer said. “Aly is such a hero, and the best thing is seeing all of the little girls here. There are tons of little girls here.”
Despite the traditional red and blue bunting on town hall, the parade on Sunday was a bit more modern than it might have been in the ‘50s: Carly Rae Jepsen’s hit “Call Me Maybe” blared from speakers before Raisman — who was sporting aviator sunglasses, a brown-flowered dress and wedge heels — was paraded through the streets in a yellow Lamborghini convertible.
And there doesn’t appear to be any slowing down. After the parade she was off to sign autographs and take photos with fans at American Girl stores in Massachusetts and New York. Soon she will be back with her Olympic teammates on the 40-stop national Kellogg’s Tour of Gymnastics Champions, which opens Sept. 8 in San Jose, Calif.
“Really, Aly did a great job,” Bauer said. “Now is the hard part for her. But she’s handling it great.”