For Aly Raisman, the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London marked the culmination of everything she had been working for during the previous 16 years.
In 1996, at 1.5 years old, Raisman was first introduced to gymnastics when her mother, Lynn, enrolled her in a Mommy and Me class. From there, she trained at Exxcel Gymnastics and Climbing in Newton, Mass., until age 10, and then moved on to Brestyan's American Gymnastics Club, run by her current coaches, Mihai and Sylvie Brestyan.
Raisman made history in London by becoming the first U.S. women's gymnast to win gold on floor exercise, topping Romania's Catalina Ponor by a margin of .400 points. A native of Needham, Mass., Raisman also captained the U.S. women's team to its second-ever team gold, following the Magnificent Seven at the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta. In addition to her two gold medals, Raisman won a bronze medal on the beam, making her the most decorated U.S. gymnast at the 2012 Summer Games.
Raisman, who will turn 20 May 25, said the rapport she had built with the Brestyans, with whom she started training in 2004, had allowed her to blossom into one of the top women's gymnasts in the world.
"I'm really lucky I have such a great relationship with my coaches," Raisman said. "They're like my second parents, and they know me better than I know myself. They are so hard on me, but at the same time, they are extremely supportive and loving."
Raisman reminisced about the effort it took to make the 2012 Olympic team. When she learned she had been selected for the team after finishing third to Gabby Douglass and Jordyn Wieber, respectively, in the all-around at the U.S. Olympic trials in San Jose, Calif., July 1, 2012, her emotions ran high, thinking back to everything it took to get to that point, Raisman said.
"There were so many more frustrating and exhausting days than there were easier days," Raisman said, "because I was perfectionist, and I always wanted everything to be perfect. I was really surprised how emotional I got remembering all of those hard days. It was just very emotional."
Raisman said that since 2009, when she turned elite -- the level from which Olympic gymnasts are chosen -- she had spent about four days per month periodically working on her skills at the national team training center in New Waverly, Texas, under the direction of U.S. national team coordinator Martha Karolyi.
Raisman said the experience she had gained at Karolyi's training camps had helped her shine under the bright lights at North Greenwich Arena during the 2012 Summer Games.
"Martha was absolutely amazing," Raisman said. "We all respected her so much, and we all wanted to impress her every single time we saw her, so I think we just kind of pushed each other to the next level. She made us do pressure sets and practice squats in the gym, so that by the time we got to the meet, we felt more confident and comfortable."
Raisman also acknowledged the importance of the amount of time she dedicated to training with the Brestyans. For the most part, she said, she spent at least six days per week training at Brestyan's American Gymnastics Club.
"I did double sessions about four times a week," Raisman said. "I would go from 8:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m., and then I would go from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Normally, I had Sunday off, but sometimes there were days my coaches had me come in for a couple of hours. I trained about 35 hours a week, so it was definitely very exhausting, but all the hard work paid off, thankfully."
Following the conclusion of the 2012 Summer Games, Raisman took a one-year sabbatical from gymnastics to regroup, both mentally and physically, she said. With the extra time off from training and competitions, Raisman performed as part of the Kellogg's Tour of Gymnastics Champions 40-city cross-country trek, which spanned from Sept. 8 to Nov. 18, and was also a contestant on season 16 of "Dancing with the Stars."
"I think 'Dancing with the Stars' and going on tour with the girls were the most memorable things," Raisman said. "On the tour, we had our own tour bus, and we were traveling to 40 different cities. It was so cool. I'll never forget it."
After her year-long victory lap, Raisman returned to training with the Brestyans at her old gym in Burlington, Mass., in September 2013. After being away from the gym for an extended period of time, Raisman said, she was working to get back to the same training regimen she had developed during the time leading up to the 2012 Summer Games.
"Right now, I'm somewhere between 20-30 hours a week," Raisman said, "so it's still been a lot. It's not as many as it was in the months building up to London, but I'm still working towards that number. I just have to pace myself."
Raisman also said she had unfinished business, thanks in part to gymnastics' count-back tiebreaker system, which cost her a bronze medal in the women's individual all-around final after she finished tied for third place with Russia's Aliya Mustafina.
"I think I still have more to give to the sport," Raisman said. "I still love gymnastics, and I still want to continue doing it. When football players win the Super Bowl or hockey players win the Stanley Cup, they don't just retire. If you still love what you are doing and have the passion for it, then I think you should keep going."
Raisman said she had eyed a potential return at this year's Secret U.S. Classic in Chicago at Sears Centre Arena Aug. 2 or the 2014 P&G Gymnastics Championships in Pittsburgh, Pa., at Consol Energy Center from Aug. 21-24.
Although no women's gymnast has made back-to-back U.S. Olympic teams since Amy Chow and Silver Spring, Md., native Dominique Dawes each accomplished the feat in 1996 and 2000, Raisman said she hoped to change that trend by qualifying for the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
"Making another Olympic team would mean everything to me," Raisman said. "Obviously, that's the goal. I've looked up to [Chow and Dawes] my whole life, so I'd love to be able to accomplish what they did. I'm just going to do the same thing I did before, and hopefully that will good be enough."