“I think it's really important to not be defined by our wins or losses.”
It was never guaranteed to happen after a year-plus of pandemic uncertainty, but the Tokyo Olympics are finally under way. Former Olympic gymnast and champion Aly Raisman, however, is entirely content watching it from afar. “I definitely am grateful for my gymnastics career and all the friendships that I've made, but I'm OK with watching [the Olympics] on the couch,” she laughs over the phone.
Beyond all the normal stress of public competition, Olympic athletes are competing under the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic, something Raisman is quick to highlight. “The pressure of the Olympics is already so consuming and so much — and then on top of that, the stress of staying healthy and not getting COVID,” she tells me. “I honestly can't imagine what they're going through. I haven't been able to stop thinking about Coco [Gauff] or Kara [Eaker]. I just feel so horrible.” Both athletes are among those who tested positive at the beginning of the games and will not be allowed to compete.
“I just truly can't imagine working so hard your whole life and dreaming of going to the Olympics and then to not be able to compete in it,” she says. “I just feel for them, and I hope that they get the support and the love that they need. I can only imagine how heartbreaking and devastating it is.”
There's so much pressure on that [Olympic] moment.
Raisman has often spoken about the pressures of being an elite athlete, but in 2021, she has the benefit of seeing it from the outside. “I think it's really important to not be defined by our wins or losses,” she says, although she acknowledges that it’s easier said than done. “I think it's something that a lot of athletes struggle with. And I think unfortunately it will be something that a lot of athletes may struggle with during the Olympics because there's so much pressure on that moment.”
Just a few days after our conversation, her words rang enormously true, as former teammate and current Olympian Simone Biles withdrew from the team gymnastics final on July 27, citing mental health. In her first attempt at the vault event, Biles was notably shaky, pulling out of her twist early and landing imperfectly. She chose to withdraw from the competition rather than compete and risk an injury, saying she wasn’t in the right mental space to perform the dangerous flips and spins of her competition routine. Many around the world lauded her decision, praising the athlete for prioritizing herself and her mental and physical health over the possibility of another Olympic gold medal. (After all, Biles already had four, plus a bronze, walking into the 2021 competition.) Raisman was among those supporting Biles, posting messages of love for her fellow Olympian.
“When someone accomplishes their dreams, sometimes they can feel there's this pressure, or it can be easy to feel defined by the success of that dream,” Raisman tells me. “Sometimes they can feel like, What do I do next with my life? I remember right after the 2016 Olympics, I got really great advice, saying, ‘Don't let the Olympics be the highlight of your life.’ And that was something that really has inspired me a lot.”
Raisman retired from gymnastics in March 2020, ahead of the projected date of the Olympics. In an Instagram post at the time, she wrote her childhood self’s dream of the Olympics had fueled her to make it to the world’s largest international competition, but that ultimately, it was her love of gymnastics that became more important. It’s striking that she framed her decision not to compete within the context of her childhood dream, but that doesn’t mean it’s out of place. “I miss the feelings of being with my teammates and having those [relationships], being able to see them a lot and being able to have fun with them, but I’m definitely not missing competing,” she says.
Success and what people's ideal life looks like is different for each person.
While she says she could have aimed for a third Olympics — if her body was capable and her training was in the right place, why not? — it wasn’t the right call for her. “There's still other dreams that I can have and still other dreams that I can strive to accomplish,” she says. “I think it's, for me, all about figuring out who I am and what I want to do and what makes me happy.”
And Raisman has done a lot beyond her gymnastics medals — she’s become known as a prominent advocate against sexual abuse, including via her work with Darkness to Light; she’s spoken openly about mental health; and she’s even been on Dancing With the Stars, among her achievements. (OK, one of these things is not like the other.) Most recently, she partnered with Olay to promote girls’ participation in STEM fields, part of the brand’s Face the STEM Gap program, done in collaboration with Million Women Mentors. The campaign connects teen girls with role models and mentors in STEM fields.
“Success and what people's ideal life looks like is different for each person,” Raisman advises. “It's really important to figure out what makes you happy and what makes you feel inspired. And I think that there are a lot of people out there that have a lot of amazing aspirations and a lot of incredible dreams, and sometimes they may not have the support system that they want. I think it's really important to find people in your life that will support you and will be there for you.”
Ultimately, the ability to step back and focus on other things fits into how she’s defined her Olympic dream. “I was inspired by the dream of going to the Olympics, but now I am lucky enough to have accomplished that dream,” she says.
And with that one down, she has a million more dreams and achievements ahead of her.