Olympic gold medal gymnast and social activist Aly Raisman, 24, was born and raised in Needham and graduated from Needham High School. She earned six medals during the 2012 and 2016 Games, becoming the second-most decorated American gymnast in Olympic history. She appeared on Dancing with the Stars, published her memoir Fierce and in the past year has become one of the leading voices in the #MeToo movement. She currently has a clothing line in collaboration with Life is Good, recently partnered with Darkness to Light—the country’s largest child abuse advocacy organization—and will be receiving the Arthur Ashe Courage Award alongside other abuse survivors at the ESPY Awards in July. She lives in the Boston area.
Jonathan Soroff: The last time we spoke, you were a young Olympic hopeful. A lot has changed since then. What’s most different about you?
Aly Raisman: It’s hard to pick one thing. I guess I’d say I never expected my life to be what it is now. As a little girl, I always dreamed of going to the Olympics, but I never expected that so many people watched them, or that so many people would know who I am. Every day, if I’m at the airport, or getting coffee, or at the market, people come up to me. It’s very cool, and I’m humbled and honored to be in that position, but I didn’t anticipate it.
JS: Do you feel like you’re one of the voices of your generation?
AR: It’s such an important time right now, and the #MeToo movement is so needed, so I feel strongly that it’s crucial to support anyone who shares their story. And I mean with whatever they’re struggling with. Whether it’s abuse or bullying or whatever, I feel like our society is now listening to people and believing people. We’ve come a long way—although we have so much further to go—but I like people supporting one another. I love that people are sharing their stories and other people are listening. Everyone is battling something. Everyone’s a survivor of something. I feel grateful that I’m being listened to and I’m being heard, because I’ve met so many people who have said, “I spoke up but nobody listened.” I guess I feel that pressure to speak up for them. I feel a great responsibility.
JS: Do you think a $500 million settlement [in the Larry Nassar case] does anything? Can money assuage the pain and suffering or repair the damage done?
AR: The most important thing for these organizations is to take accountability and listen to the survivors, hear them out. And not one organization has done that. But when you file a lawsuit, you’re able to get information and data that you otherwise wouldn’t. The reason I personally decided to file a lawsuit is because there hasn’t been a full, independent investigation. I want the answers. And in certain respects, lawsuits are useful in doing that. The fact that there are still people working in these organizations when problems were reported so long ago is really frustrating, and it’s what keeps me up at night. I would love to be a part of USA Gymnastics and helping them create change, but I can’t do that if they’re not willing to sit down and talk with me.
JS: Is all of the media attention tiresome?
AR: It is exhausting and traumatizing. I’m constantly reliving my abuse, and the last couple of months were extra-draining. I first spoke up back in August and I came forward with my story in November. I was so sick and so nervous. I don’t know if people understand how hard it is to do that. I could hold it together in court or whatever, but then I could barely hold my head up afterward. In the past few months, I’ve barely worked out, which for someone who loves working out, that’s saying a lot. But the exhaustion is incredible, especially because you’re dealing with a serious issue and you always have to be on. I understand that when I speak, I’m not just speaking for myself. I’m speaking for anyone who suffered this and doesn’t have a voice, and I take that very seriously. I want people to know that I have the best intentions, and with the media, you can’t really control what they’re going to print or how it will come across. You can be misquoted. All of that said, in the past few months, I’ve been home more. I’ve been focusing on taking care of myself with acupuncture, therapy, meditating, using essential oils to calm myself. I know this problem isn’t going to be fixed overnight. So I have to take care of myself. It’s OK to ask for help.
JS: Is there one thing you’d go back and do differently?
AR: Of course, I wish I knew what was happening when I was younger. I had no idea that I was being abused because he was a doctor. I was very uncomfortable with him, and I thought he was very weird. But I thought that because he was a doctor, I almost felt guilty for thinking badly of him. I wish I’d realized that it’s important to speak up, even if you’re unsure, when someone’s making you feel uncomfortable. But I don’t want to look back with any regrets, because everything has led me to where I am now.
Wardrobe: Naked Zebra skirt, Vince T-shirt
JS: Would you ever let your child compete in the Olympics or as an elite athlete?
AR: Only if USA Gymnastics and the U.S. Olympic Committee were willing to work with us and make changes and take a hard look at what’s gone on. They’ve been silent. And it’s not just in gymnastics but other sports. They’re ignoring this problem. But if they were willing to make a change—which obviously the people in charge don’t care—I would. Those people need to be gone, and the problem needs to be fixed from the top down to the level when a 4-year-old starts playing a sport. I’ve partnered with Darkness to Light, which is a two-hour course I recommend to everyone. It’s the adult’s job to protect children, and they all need to be educated. I’d like the course to be mandated in every single sport, with everyone involved. It can save a child’s life.
JS: Qualities of being an Olympian that help you as an entrepreneur?
AR: I’m very determined, and I know that in order to get what you want, you have to work really hard at it. Nothing in life comes easy. And also, understanding that things don’t happen overnight.
JS: Three adjectives that best describe you?
AR: It depends on the time period in my life. The past few months, it’s been serious, strong and tired. But now I’d also say happy, calm and hopeful. I feel happier than I did a few months ago.
• Best Beach Town: North Falmouth
• Best Fitness Program: Mike Boyle Strength & Conditioning
• Best Patio Dining: Stephanie’s on Newbury
• Best Vegan Restaurant: by Chloe.
• Best Workout: FitBOX Boxing & Fitness Club
JS: What gymnastic ability have you lost since you were competing?
AR: Oh, god. The thing about gymnastics is it’s not one of those things where you can just take off a few months, jump back in and do a floor routine. It takes a long time to get to that point, training six days a week. If I went into the gym, I couldn’t do nearly close to what I used to do. It would actually be very dangerous. If I were to try a double-back, I don’t even want to know what would happen. So I’ve lost a lot of skills. I’m sure if I just tried swinging on the bar, my shoulder would hurt and I’d have rips all over my hands. But I feel like what I’m doing right now is more important.
JS: With your training schedule growing up, do you feel like you missed out on anything?
AR: When I was younger, I sometimes felt left out. I’d get into class on Monday, and everybody would be talking about the fun things they did over the weekend. But then as soon as I went to practice Monday night, I forgot about that. I just loved gymnastics so much. So I don’t view it that I missed out on anything. It’s been incredible.
JS: Did you ever get sick of “Hava Nagila”?
AR: No, because it’s such a great song, and obviously, it means so much to the Jewish community. It was my floor music for two years, and for some reason, I never got sick of it. I was proud to perform to it.
JS: Do you still have a gymnastic move that you bust out as a party trick?
AR: No, I’ve never done that. I’m so not like that. I never bring my Olympic medals anywhere. I never do gymnastics anywhere. I feel like my whole life, I was known as Aly the Gymnast, so I like to just be Aly. I’m totally uncomfortable doing that. People know I do gymnastics. Why can’t I just be me?
JS: Favorite talk show experience?
AR: I’m going to say Hoda Kotb [The Today Show]. She’s so nice, so understanding, so respectful. She’s a very warm person. You can tell she really cares and wants to do right by you. I really enjoyed that.
JS: How does Dancing with the Stars compare to training for the Olympics?
AR: It doesn’t. I loved the experience. It’s challenging, learning the dance steps—and it’s exhausting. You’re dancing in heels. It’s also really nerve-wracking to do something outside of your comfort zone on national television, with only one shot to do it. But the level of precision is different, and it’s different in general. Gymnastics is so much scarier. You’re on a 4-inch wide beam, 4 feet in the air. The pressure of competing in the Olympics was intense. Dancing with the Stars was more fun.
JS: Favorite ballroom dance?
AR: It was so long ago! I couldn’t do any of them now. But I remember thinking the cha-cha was fun.
JS: Olympian you most admire?
AR: I would say the older I get, the more I admire athletes for the kind of person they are. My parents always told me that it was more important to be kind and have good character than it was to be in a certain place on the podium. To be honest, I always thought they were telling me that because I was little and they wanted to make me feel better if I didn’t win. But now, I see that lesson and those values so much more clearly than ever. It’s awesome to be a great athlete, but if you’re not a good person, it doesn’t matter.
JS: What other things have you changed your thinking about?
AR: When I was younger, I was so self-conscious about my muscles. I thought it was really weird, because I was so strong. I think that’s wrong, and I don’t want any young girl or woman to feel like that. Everyone should be proud of their bodies. Everyone’s body is unique.
JS: Thing that bugs you about pictures of yourself?
AR: [Laughs.] I’ve learned to stay off the internet as much as I can. I’ve also been trying to take more of a break from social media. I would say that when you’re more in the limelight, you notice more things about yourself than you would otherwise. I tend to pick myself apart more in a photo than I would in the mirror at home, so I’ve learned not to do that to myself. It’s not what’s important in life. Obviously, I’m human, but I just try to convince myself that no one’s looking at me the way I look at myself.
JS: In one sentence, what is the one thing you want people to take away from reading your book?
AR: To do what makes you happy, and to do the right thing.
JS: You’ve always been into fashion. Who’s the designer you’re loving right now?
AR: I recently wore Ralph Lauren to the Time 100 event, and I just loved it. It was a really cool jumpsuit but kinda looked like a silk robe. It was so cool. His stuff is just so simple and elegant.
JS: Favorite fashion magazine?
AR: Ooh. I would say it has more to do with what’s inside. It depends on what they’re covering.
JS: Where do you keep your medals?
AR: I keep them in a safe, not at my house, because I feel like people know where I live.
JS: So you’re very young, but you’ve been through a lot. How do you want to be remembered ultimately?
AR: I would like to be remembered for standing up for the right thing. It’s always more important to do the right thing than to win medals. I’d like to change this generation and the next generation so that by the time I have kids, everyone will be educated, so a child never, ever has to say the words, “Me, too.” ◆
Photographer: Brian Doben; Photo Assistants: Jesper Justesen and Nancy Doben; Location: The Trustees’ Eleanor Cabot Bradley Estate; Hair and Makeup Artist: Lori Greene / Ennis Inc.; Stylist: Caitlin Dooley / Anchor Artists; Assistant Stylist: Michelle Villada / Anchor Artists; Wardrobe on the cover: Rag & Bone Suit from Saks Fifth Avenue, Life is Good T-shirt, gorjana rings; Wardrobe on this page: Melanie Auld necklace from Intermix, Gorjana Earrings, Sau Lee Dress