Published November 18, 2021
With her compassion and sensitivity much on display, Olympic gold medal-winning gymnast Aly Raisman stressed the need for support for those who have suffered trauma like herself, or who are struggling in any way with life’s difficulties.
Raisman spoke to a UB audience Nov. 16 to open this year’s Distinguished Speakers Series. Moderator Helen “Nellie” Drew, professor of practice in sports law and director of the UB Center for the Advancement of Sport, posed a series of questions in the hour-long program in the Center for the Arts Mainstage before an appreciative audience.
Raisman, who retired from gymnastics after serving as team captain for gold medal-winning U.S. teams in the 2012 and 2016 Olympics, was asked what advice she’d give to today’s young athletes. “For anyone, whether you’re an athlete or not, is to remember you are so much more than your sport, or your place on the podium, or the type of job that you have. You don’t define your worth by being an athlete or your results,” she said, noting that passion for one’s sport can be successfully transferred to other activities — such as playing a sport for fun — after leaving competitive athletics. “That feeling is always within you and you can find it somewhere else,” she said.
The 27-year-old Olympian advised athletes who might be struggling with training regimens, the pressure to win, or mental health concerns to find support groups or helpful apps, or identify self-help techniques such as journaling or taking nature walks. “There’s no direct map that will show you how to heal, or help you feel better. So give yourself some time and patience. Give yourself some slack and don’t be so hard on yourself,” she said.
Raisman noted that her best-selling 2017 book, “Fierce: How Competing for Myself Changed Everything,” was written while she was in a gymnastics mindset. In the book, she describes the abuse of Larry Nassar, then physician for the U.S. team, who is now serving a life term for his crimes against so many women. Much has changed in her self-perception since writing the book, Raisman noted. “I was very fresh out of competing. [Now] I would not give myself or anyone that same advice about blocking out the fear. Today, I’m working at not blocking things out, and trying to recognize that feeling and working through it, which is very challenging sometimes.”
In September, Raisman and three other U.S. gymnasts testified before a U.S. Senate committee examining the investigation of Nassar for his molestation of hundreds of women under his care. Though it was traumatizing to testify about such personal matters, Raisman noted the positive effects of her statements and her overall platform, noting that “it’s OK if you’re struggling. It’s OK to ask for help.”
In her post-gymnastics career, Raisman gives herself permission “not to be perfect all the time.” While continuing to work out, she will say “enough” after a couple minutes on the treadmill, for instance. Years of training and pressure have taken a toll, she said, adding, “I’m very much enjoying not doing gymnastics anymore.”
Raisman had tough words concerning the scope of sexual abuse in the U.S., in particular on college campuses, where it’s “a massive problem.” Often victims don’t feel comfortable approaching an appropriate support group, she said, noting that “everyone coming to school has a right to be safe.” Furthermore, this right has nothing to do with a woman’s choice of attire, or whether she drinks too much at a party. “If you have too much to drink, the only thing you should have is a hangover,” she said. “You shouldn’t have anything else. It’s really heartbreaking how many people blame themselves for what they were wearing.”
Asked to name her “proudest accomplishment,” Raisman didn’t cite her Olympic medals. Nor did she enumerate her other athletic honors. Instead, she is most proud of being a good daughter (she’s the oldest of four) and is thrilled with her new puppy. Her next chapter entails finding passions, like gardening, that extend beyond gymnastics, or that complement her continued advocacy for those who have been abused.
“If I’m helping one person out there, I feel very grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to give back.”