CJ Kaplan thinks Needham, MA native Aly Raisman deserves to be considered among the greatest captains in New England history.
In recent years, we’ve seen some great sports leadership here in New England. Our professional teams have enjoyed unprecedented success with all four franchises winning championships in the past decade. In each case, the captains were key components in pushing the team to the ultimate victory. Not simply because of their accomplishments on the field, but for the way they led their teams before the games were played and even after they were over.
Jason Varitek captained the Red Sox to their first championship in 86 years. When most people think of that team, the names Ortiz, Schilling, Millar, Damon and Ramirez come to mind. Varitek is probably tenth on the list if he even gets mentioned at all. But, make no mistake. This was Jason’s team. He was the backbone of the 2004 Red Sox. Loudmouths like Schilling, free spirits like Damon and even troublemakers like Ramirez all deferred to him. In fact, the whole season turned around during a game in July when Varitek stuffed his catcher’s mitt into A-Rod’s face and told the Yankees that this year was going to be different. It was a very captain-esque thing to do.
On the ice, the monstrous defenseman known as “Z” to Bruins fans propelled Boston to its first Stanley Cup in over 40 years. Zedeno Chara wore the “C” proudly on his shoulder as he pulverized opposing forwards who dared to step over the blue line and terrorized net minders with his 100mph slap shot. Goalie Tim Thomas was the hero in the playoffs and deservedly got most of the ink. But, it was Z who hoisted the Cup first and highest.
In basketball, Kevin Garnett was the mouth and heart of the 2008 championship team. His fire and intensity were the hallmarks of that team. However, captain Paul Pierce was the soul. He was the one who had been with the team through the lowest lows and yet he sacrificed the glamour of scoring in order to play shut-down defense on guys named LeBron and Kobe. When Doc Rivers preached the concept of “Ubuntu” (togetherness), Paul made sure that everyone believed until they had accomplished their goal.
In football, we have Tom Brady. He has nothing left to prove. And still, year after year, season after season, he drives the Patriots as if he’s never won a Super Bowl. He’s one of the reasons the Pats can put together a receiving core made out of cast-offs and walk-ons and still compete for a championship every year. He does what only transcendent players do—he makes everyone else around them better.
All four of these great captains share a common trait. They are humble, team-first players who turn away from the spotlight rather than bathe in it.* As of Tuesday, there is a fifth New England captain who should be mentioned in the same breath as the other four.
This new captain just so happens to be a 5-foot-2, 115-pound, 18-year-old girl.
Aly Raisman, as you know by know, hails from a suburb of Boston called Needham. I also happen to be a Needham resident. In fact, I was born in Needham, grew up here and spent the majority of my adult life here. And believe me when I tell you that Needham is in the full throes of Aly Raisman Fever. Homemade signs dot houses and businesses throughout the town. Images of Raisman are painted on the huge picture windows of the local supermarket. I can even see the enormous “Good Luck Aly” banner draped over the town hall from my office window across the street. Needham is virtually bursting with pride.
To be honest, I probably wouldn’t have watched the gymnastics competition were it not for Aly. It’s not my favorite Olympic sport and I’ll never comprehend the vagaries of the scoring system. But, how could I not tune in and cheer on the hometown kid? So, I was glued to the set Sunday night when our girls took the floor for the qualifying round. I squirmed and gyrated along with Rick and Lynn Raisman as their daughter dominated one piece of apparatus after another. My wife and I shouted things at the screen in a tone and dialect usually reserved for football season. The number of times in my life I had yelled the phrase “Stick it!” increased from 0 to 150 in the span of half an hour.
When it was over, the U.S. had qualified first in the team competition and Aly, not pre-Olympic favorite Jordan Wieber, had qualified for the all-around finals.
If you’re looking for a moment when a great captain was born, this may have been it. Cognizant of the fact that she had beaten out her friend and roommate for a finals spot that seemed pre-ordained, Aly stifled her own excitement. In what must have been a crowning achievement for a gymnast considered a floor and beam specialist only, she put her hand over her mouth, allowed herself a few tears of joy and walked quickly over to retrieve her gear. In the post-event interview with Wieber sobbing openly in the background, Aly spoke in subdued tones about being proud of the team’s accomplishments rather than her own. Afterward, she had the good sense to leave Jordan alone while she tried to compose herself for what must have been a soul-crushing interview. Aly knew that she was the last person Jordan would want to see at that moment. If there was consoling to be done, it would happen later in private away from the camera’s prying eye.
On Tuesday, I somehow managed not to find out the results of the team finals before the television broadcast that night. No easy feat in this day and age. The whole family settled in front of the television to see if the U.S. could pull off the second Olympic team victory ever and the first since 1996. Raisman and her team marched onto the floor under our country’s banner with sparkles on the faces and gleams of confidence in their eyes. And that’s when Captain Aly really went to work.
First, she fired up laid back BFFs Kyla Ross and McKayla Maroney to the point that Maroney nearly jumped out of the gym when she performed her flawless vault. (Nobody has been able to sufficiently explain to me how she didn’t get a perfect score on that vault. But, again, gymnastics scoring baffles me.) Then, she chilled out the mercurial Gabby Douglas when Douglas seemed to be getting a tad over-excited. Douglas pulled it together and delivered four outstanding performances. If Raisman communicated with Wieber at all, it was non-verbally. Aly knew that Jordan needed redemption on her own terms, which is exactly what she got in the floor exercise.
Aly Raisman was pulling more strings than Don Corleone. And this was all in addition to making sure she came through when it was her turn.
After the third rotation, it became clear that the Russians were the only ones with a chance to catch Team USA. Rather than watch the former Soviet Union as they performed their floor routines, Raisman huddled her team off to the side. Arms around each other, they talked about keeping calm and doing their jobs while out on the floor the Russians crumbled like the Berlin Wall.
Unaware of the Russian collapse or the scores they needed to win, Douglas, Wieber and Raisman ripped off three consecutive rock solid performances to capture the gold. As Raisman completed her last difficult pass and bounced seemingly weightless off the mat and into the air, she knew she had it.
And so did we.
In the build-up prior to the announcement of the final scores, Team USA appeared to be running in all directions like exuberant puppies before Aly pulled them together once more. She arranged them into a unified group, holding hands as they looked expectantly up at the scoreboard knowing that this was how history would remember them.
During the several dozen interviews following the medal ceremony, the entire team took on the same tone and demeanor. Every time there was a question about an individual performance, each young woman turned it around and made it about the team.
Team. Team. Team.
It was as if they were channeling the personas of Varitek, Chara, Pierce and Brady. Or, more likely, Aly Raisman.
Throughout the gymnastics competition, the young women of Team USA turned to Aly for support, comfort, encouragement and energy. And she delivered every time.
She was a captain’s captain.
I hope Aly gets to enjoy this. I hope she gets to have a big sundae at the local ice cream parlor when she gets back. I hope she gets to spend some time with family and friends, laughing and dancing around to whatever terrible music 18-year-old girls are listening to at the moment.
I hope she gets to be an 18-year-old girl for a while.
And finally, I hope Aly Raisman knows that she’s given all of New England another captain to admire.
*Spare me the comments Brady Haters. NFL quarterback is the most glamorous position in American professional sports. And for a guy with three rings and a supermodel wife, Brady keeps as low a profile as anyone could hope to in his position. Need proof? Everyone remembers seasons where Peyton Manning or Brett Favre or Aaron Rogers were in every other commercial on TV. Remember the season when Tom Brady was in every other commercial? Yeah, me neither.