NEEDHAM, Mass. - A line snakes down the lawn of the red brick town hall topped by a gold cupola of this New England town founded in 1711, today a suburb of Boston. So many fans have arrived to cheer on Aly Raisman, the hometown Olympic hero, for an “Aly Rally” that overflow rooms are opened and some are even turned away.
A crowd of some 500 people, a mix of pony-tailed preteen girls, former classmates, and residents who have ducked out of work, has come together as a community to watch a live feed of Raisman competing for gold in the women’s all-around gymnastics event at the London Olympics. Among them is Susan Faber.
Faber, 71, is Raisman’s maternal grandmother and she is nervous.
“She grew up overnight in my eyes,” Faber says of Raisman, who as captain of the U.S. women’s gymnastics team helped lead her squad to gold on Tuesday. “I can’t wait till she gets home so I can put my arms around her.”
After the rounds of “Let’s Go Aly” cheers subside, Faber sits perfectly still and watches the large screen hanging over the town hall’s sprawling stage as her granddaughter warms up for her uneven parallel routine.
A hush falls over the crowd as Raisman sails through the air. They explode into roaring applause and whistles when she nails a close-to-perfect landing.
But when she almost loses her balance on the balance beam, once and then again, gasps can be heard at the Aly Rally.
“She had gotten so far and we’ve been watching her in every event. That stumble, it just made my heart stop,” said Cassie Sham, 18, who graduated from Needham High School together with Raisman in June.
Like their hometown hero, the crowd regrouped and found their composure once Raisman began her floor exercise, clapping along to the music of “Hava Nagila.”
Faber, her grandmother, took heart in the decision to choose the Hebrew folksong.
“I thought that it was a nice thing to do. It’s a way to say they she is proud of her religion,” said Faber.
Raisman’s family belongs to Temple Beth Avodah , a reform synagogue in neighboring Newton, Mass. Keith Stern, the rabbi there, has watched Raisman grow up.
“It’s kind of amazing. From the time she was a little girl the attributes she displays as an athlete were already part of her character: that she is a good listener, is polite, and as the older sister (of three younger siblings) has the mother hen in her,” says Stern.
“It’s not surprising to me that at certain points during the group competition she was having private consultations and cheerleading (her teammates). She wasn’t just giving little hugs."
Noting the video of her parents, Lynn and Rick Raisman, watching her compete that has gone viral on the Internet, the family rabbi says, “They are funny and honest and straight-shooting.”
During the rally as the crowd waited for the live feed from London to begin, one of the organizers made light of the video, dividing the large hall into two groups. “The Lynns” who repeated one of her lines from the video, “Stick it” and “The Ricks” who were instructed to shout out “Aghhh” as Raisman’s father did when his daughter nailed the floor routine they were watching.
On Thursday, Raisman’s fans felt her disappointment as a community when she barely missed the bronze. That stumble on the balance beam cost Raisman a medal. Although officially tied for third place, she was given fourth place because of a recently instituted technical rule.
“It says a lot that she can pick herself up and make her next landing,” says Sham.
Sham and her friends will be watching again next week as Raisman goes for a medal once again, this time for specific wins in the balance beam and floor events.
For Rabbi Jay Perlman, rabbi of Temple Beth Shalom, a reform synagogue in Needham, the collective pride is palpable.
“People are genuinely proud that we all share a hometown. And I know that many are very happy to share a Jewish connection with her as well. Both in Needham and in the Jewish community, there is a sense that something wonderful is happening to someone in our extended family,” he said.
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