Who is Aly Raisman today?

PART II OF ALY RAISMAN SERIES by Darby Daly and Marissa Egloff

On Tuesday November 16, 2021, USA Gymnastics Olympic gold medalist Aly Raisman visited University at Buffalo for the UB Distinguished Speakers Series—one of the school’s first since March 2020. Not only is Raisman an elite gymnast who is decorated with Olympic medals, she is a public advocate for body positivity, mental health, and sexual assault survivors. Though certainly not an achievement to look past, Raisman’s Olympic career, from which she retired in 2016, has since been overshadowed by her countless other accomplishments, making her a perfect figure to speak at UB. 

The Distinguished Speakers Series event began at 7:00 pm, however, Raisman took the time to speak on a more personal level to UB law students and UB athletes, all of whom were visibly gleaming through their masks while listening to Raisman speak. This more personal discussion took place at 5:30 pm, and Raisman answered a variety of questions facilitated by UB’s senior associate athletic director, D’Ann Keller. Raisman effortlessly navigated through a variety of topics, including mental health, friendships, self-care, sexual assault, and (of course) being an athlete. 

Professor Helen “Nellie” Drew laughing with Aly Raisman. Photo by Joe Cascio Photography ©Joe Cascio 2021

As she spoke to the students, Raisman exuded a sense of relatability, making everyone in the room believe she was talking specifically to them. Raisman’s ability to connect to others, despite her Olympian status, was truly impressive. She opened up about all the pressure surrounding the Olympics and the pressure she put on herself to be perfect. She discussed the unique relationship with her teammates and how that relationship and laughing really helped the girls to deal with the pressure of competition. Raisman stated that her relationship with her teammates is like no other relationship she has. To be successful, the team must work together, connect, and have fun. Raisman fondly stated her favorite memory from the Olympics was laughing and being silly with her teammates. She stated that “good relationships [are] really what matters”.

Given her status as an advocate for mental health, Keller asked Raisman a variety of questions on the subject, with one in particular being whether Raisman feels that athletes are provided with adequate mental health support throughout their athletic careers. Raisman felt strongly about this topic, saying that she believes there really is so much more than can be done for athletes on this level. While it’s easy to consider the importance of athletes having access to mental health resources such as sports psychologists while they’re competing, Raisman highlighted a significant issue that can be especially relevant to college athletes: there’s nothing to help the athletes when they’re done competing. Raisman elaborated on this by saying how difficult it can be for athletes to finish their sport—whether it be due to retirement or an injury—and have to acclimate to a non-athletic lifestyle in which their identity as an athlete has disappeared. This message is incredibly important to college athletes, as many athletes struggle upon graduation to figure out who they are outside of athletics. Raisman’s comment raises important questions surrounding what more we can do to help athletes and serves as yet another reminder of why she is such an important role model in the realm of mental health. 

When asked what it meant to be a role model for prevention of sexual abuse and mental health, Raisman responded by stating that, in recent years, people stop her in public to discuss her advancements as a sexual assault advocate as opposed to her gymnastics career. She explained that when “I first decided to share my story, I had no control over how people would react. I am very thankful for how people reacted.” She went on to state, “People sharing their stories with me gives me energy to share my story.” Raisman discussed how CEO’s of large companies have come up to her and explained they are a survivor of child abuse and she was the first person that they told. She had many stories of individuals sharing their story with her. Raisman explained, “we are all more similar than we think, we have all been through hard things…We need more spaces to discuss what surviving abuse looks like.” Most people don’t have the platform Raisman has to share her story, but her main message was clear: we need to destigmatize mental health and we can all help that become reality. We all know someone who is struggling with mental health but we may just not know it.

Raisman elaborated on the importance of mental health by explaining to the students, “You need to give yourself time to do something really fun for yourself. Do something that brings you joy. Schedule in time for yourself just like you schedule practice or a meeting into your day.” Raisman explained that she personally loves gardening, being around animals and taking her puppy Mylo (who is absolutely adorable) to the dog park to make herself feel calm and recharged. Throughout her talk with the small group she repeated, “be kind to yourself and do something for yourself”. She explained that she tries to be empathetic and if we are kinder to ourselves, the more kind we can be to others which will lead to a kinder world.

After the small group session ended, the law students were granted the opportunity to take a photo with and meet Raisman. She was just as genuine off the stage as she was on stage. Photo by Andrew Eskander Gergies.

  Then the night continued with the main event, with a full audience in attendance to listen to Raisman speak. Our own Professor Drew, moderated the evening. Raisman came out on stage and the first question she was asked was whether she was a New England Patriots fan. Raisman responded by saying “yes and that the conversation was not off to a good start.” She went on to explain that Boston is a great sports town and she remembers going to games as a kid, which effortlessly led into her praise of how sports can bring communities together.

Raisman was very open with discussing mental health, especially hers in particular. Raisman went on to discuss how she has gone to therapy to help herself heal. She stated, “therapy is like dating, you have to keep going until you find the right fit and therapy is not for everyone. Mental health is not one size fits all and it’s all trial and error. You have to do more of what makes you feel good.” This openness of discussing mental health is essential for every community—particularly college campuses—making Raisman a crucial public figure to have these conversations.

When read a quote from her book and asked how she blocks out the fear of competition, Raisman responded by stating that she wrote the book five years ago and it’s so interesting to reflect on the fact that who she was when she wrote the book is not the person she is today. The book was her truth when she did gymnastics. She stated today she would not tell anyone to block out the fear, “Today, I’m trying to work through it and not block it out. Today, I’m also working on treating myself like a human and being tired. Some days, I get on the treadmill for like two minutes and I’m done. I don’t really workout much anymore. I am trying to give myself time to recover. I am exhausted. It really takes a toll mentally and physically to try to be perfect all the time.” She ended by stating, “I have thought about going back and reading the book to see how much I have grown. I’m very much enjoying not doing gymnastics.”

One of the most significant ways in which Raisman has used her platform upon her retirement from gymnastics is to advocate for sexual assault survivors, making that one of the most crucial topics of the evening. When asked “how we can protect our children from being subjected to sexual abuse”, Raisman responded by saying “Support and community is everything. It’s heartbreaking when people don’t feel welcome. It’s very important for schools to help people feel welcome.” Raisman went on to give some dark statistics surrounding the issue by explaining, “A lot of people are suffering in silence. 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys are sexually abused before the age of 18. It’s very important for staff to be provided with proper training and know what to do if someone comes to them saying they were abused”. Raisman went on to say, “ I wish I had learned the red flags and recognized what happened to me. Follow your gut. Survivors do speak up, but people tend to protect the abuser. When the survivor has enough courage to speak up it’s very important they feel supported.” 

Raisman continued by explaining that people in authority positions need to recognize the power they have and that sexual assault is a major problem. Schools need to investigate and solve every incident—everyone needs to feel safe. “We also have to recognize that the issue won’t be solved overnight,” Raisman told the audience, “Things will happen and when an abuser has one victim, they have many and if we handle the incident immediately we are helping the victim and preventing future victims.”

Drew and Raisman on stage during the main event. Photo by Joe Cascio Photography ©Joe Cascio 2021

When asked what her proudest moment was, Raisman answered that she feels proud to have overcome so much,  “I try to be a good daughter, sister, and dog mom…I am proud of the work I am doing to prevent child and sex abuse—but it is very personal and very draining.” Raisman went on to discuss how proud she felt of her accomplishments testifying in front of Congress regarding the USA Gymnastics sexual assault case, “In September, I went to testify with my teammates and that was very traumatizing but I feel very grateful for the platform. I am proud to push for change and I am grateful to help just one person.”

The evening was wrapped up by Drew asking Raisman what her next chapter looks like. Raisman responded that she is very passionate about abuse prevention but she also needs to recover. Raisman explained that she needs to find more of a balance and figure out who she is outside of gymnastics, and that she is trying to be more open and step out of her comfort zone. Raisman discussed her work with Darkness to Light, a non-profit that works to empower adults to prevent child sexual abuse, and explained that she looks to do more with them in the future. From the sound of it, we can expect to see Raisman create an even bigger presence for herself as an advocate as she made it clear that she’s only going to continue to use her platform for good. 

Thank you, Aly Raisman, for taking time out of your busy schedule to meet and share your wisdom with us. We appreciate your courage and activism for survivors of child and sexual abuse and all you are doing to promote kindness in our society. Your wisdom will resonate for years to come! As I (Marissa) said to you, Aly, you truly are inspirational. It was truly a night we won’t forget, even though you are a Patriots fan in Bills Country.

Daly, Drew, Egloff and Raisman from left to right. Photo by Joe Cascio Photography ©Joe Cascio 2021

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