The woman they call “Grandma Aly” turned 22 in May.
On the Olympic women’s gymnastics team, though, Aly Raisman’s nickname is actually kind of fitting.
“Everyone calls her ‘Grandma Aly’ because she goes to bed (early) and takes a lot of naps and sleeps a lot and is just, you know, a health nut,” joked Gabby Douglas, the teammate most likely to relate at age 20.
With 16-year-old Laurie Hernandez, the youngest of five gymnasts on Team USA, Raisman hardly stands a chance.
“She typed (in a text message) ‘wyd’ yesterday, and I was like, what does that mean?” Raisman said. “She’s like, ‘It means what are you doing? You really are old.’”
Elite gymnasts occasionally do try to stick around for a second Olympic cycle. Five of the six gymnasts from the Beijing Games in 2008 were still competing in the summer of 2012, and all of the “Fierce Five” gymnasts who won the Olympic gold medal that summer said they wanted to come back for 2016.
But when Raisman and Douglas were indeed named to the 2016 Olympic team on Sunday, they became the first U.S. women’s gymnasts to make a second Olympic team since Amy Chow and Dominique Dawes did so in 2000.
For Raisman, the “grandma” tendencies helped make that comeback possible.
In fact, they might have made her even better.
“Because I did well at the last Olympics, I have access to better nutritionists and better physical trainers and stuff like that,” Raisman, of Needham, Massachusetts, said, “so my body actually, knock on wood, feels better than it did in 2012.”
In addition to her precious sleep, Raisman, who returned to competition last year, said she’s eating differently — and better — now, balancing carbs and protein both before and after training, as opposed to protein before and carbs after. She’s also begun regular dry needling, a process similar to acupuncture, which she credits with helping in her recovery. It’s all part of the full-time commitment she made to win another gold medal.
“Everything I do revolves around gymnastics,” she said. “I basically eat, sleep and train."
That dedication showed at the P&G Gymnastics Championships last month and U.S. Olympic Team Trials last weekend, the competitions that weighed heavily on the selection of the Olympic team.
With 19-year-old phenom and Olympic gold-medal favorite Simone Biles so far ahead of the competition that she’s essentially competing against herself, Raisman finished second in the all-around and on three events at the P&Gs before finishing third in the all-around and top-three on those same three events at trials.
As in 2012, she was not just good but also remarkably steady, her feet seemingly glued to the balance beam and her tumbling passes powerful and composed as she avoided major mistakes.
Raisman’s gymnastics alone left little doubt as to her fate when the Olympic team was announced Sunday night.
But when it comes to Team USA, Raisman’s motherly nickname takes on another dimension.
“She definitely keeps everyone in tune a little bit, and she gives very good advice if someone’s nervous,” Douglas said.
“She’s sort of the one who’s always looking out for everybody and looking out for how do we do things a little bit better,” added USA Gymnastics President Steve Penny. “She’s kind of a little bit of a Martha.”
That would be Martha Karolyi, the retiring national team coordinator whose exacting standards have guided U.S. gymnasts to 87 world championships and Olympic medals since taking her position in 2001.
If there’s one area in which Raisman has fully embraced her inner Martha, it’s in her fierce dedication to the team concept. The American women — winners of the last Olympic Games and the past three world championships — will be favorites to win another Olympic gold medal in Rio.
That team-first approach is not necessarily natural for an elite gymnast. The five women on the Olympic team spend most of their time training at their own gyms in different parts of the country, and each 2016 team member has realistic aspirations for individual medals.
Raisman, for example, is the defending Olympic floor exercise champion and an all-around medal contender. But she knows Biles is the three-time defending world champion on floor exercise, and Biles, Douglas and Hernandez all have all-around hopes, as well.
Raisman knows firsthand how unforgiving Olympic gymnastics can be. In 2012 she shocked teammate and defending world champion Jordyn Wieber by qualifying as one of Team USA’s two all-around finalists. Raisman was second and Douglas third while Wieber, despite having the fourth-highest qualifying score, was out before finals.
“Of course I would love to make an event final,” said Raisman, who was fourth in the all-around in London, “but the two per country rule is brutal. I’m just trying to focus now on the team competition, and hopefully, if I get team captain again, being a good captain to these girls.”
Her leadership proved strong in 2012. Any uncomfortable feelings from the qualifiers were put aside two days later as the “Fierce Five” won the team gold medal.
Even if Raisman isn’t named captain again for Rio, Biles expects her to still lead the group, which also includes 19-year-old Madison Kocian.
“She would still take on that role just because of who she is and the leader and role model she is,” Biles said.
It’s a role that comes naturally, Raisman said, as the older sister to three siblings. And it’s a role she embraces with her teammates and USA Gymnastics officials. Penny told a story from the second night at Olympic Trials, when officials were working to find the right volume for the floor exercise music. That’s when Raisman, warming up for the balance beam, caught his attention and signaled that the volume should go up even higher.
“Aly cuts through the clutter,” Penny said. “Aly helps everybody know what needs to be done.”
And at the top of that list is Raisman herself. While some Olympic gymnasts struggle to re-dedicate themselves to a grueling second cycle, “Grandma Aly” has found solace in the second journey — long days at the gym, early bedtimes, healthy meals, all of it.
“That’s literally all my life is,” she said, “but I wouldn’t have it any other way. Obviously it’s all worth it."
Chrös McDougall has covered the Olympic Movement for TeamUSA.org since 2009, including the gymnastics national championships and Olympic trials every year since 2011, on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc. He is based in Minneapolis-St. Paul.