LONDON – In the mayhem after disappointment there was shouting all around Aly Raisman. Nobody on the American team could believe her fourth-place balance beam score of 14.966. It wasn't accurate. The American coaches Bela and Marta Karolyi looked at Raisman's personal coach, Mihai Brestyan, and shouted.
You have to appeal!
In his more than 20 years of coaching gymnasts at an elite level Brestyan had never filed an appeal, known as an inquiry in the gymnastics world. He knew the process. All Olympic coaches do. Early on Tuesday, he went through the same pre-performance routine of neatly typing an appeal form in case it was needed since the rules say you have little time to file it after a score is posted. Then he put the form in a manila folder that he tucked deep in his brown, over-the-shoulder brief case.
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Now suddenly he needed that paper.
Where was it?
Ultimately, he would save the Olympics for Aly Raisman. He would manage to convince the judges to turn her fourth-place finish into a bronze medal, inspiring her to win the gold in the floor routine. An afternoon that could have ended in sorrow, with no American medals, would be glorious.
Later Raisman would say: "Today has become a dream come true."
And all because of Mihai Brestyan.
As soon as the Karolyis screamed, Brestyan ran to the head judge. Olympic rules say teams can appeal judges' results, but only in the difficulty half of the judging. They say the appeal must be filed by a personal coach and that the appeal must be processed in less than five minutes. This is why coaches fill out the appeals forms in advance. Time is precious.
But because there was so much chaos and everyone was screaming and he had never filed an inquiry before, Raisman didn't think about the form in his bag. He ran to the judges' table, found the head judge and demanded an inquiry. The judge asked for the form. Brestyan slumped. His bag with the completed form tucked in the folder was on the other side of the North Greenwich Arena floor. It was too far away. He would never be able to run back to the bag, open the zipper, dig through his folders until he found the right one, grab the form and spring all the way back.
He looked at the clock.
Seconds ticked away.
Someone handed him a blank form and a pen. Another person gave him a pad to place under the paper. Later he wouldn't be able to say what the pad looked like. All he would remember is holding it in his hand, placing the blank form on top and writing. His hands shook. The letters were sloppy. He had to make sure he had Raisman's competition number – 413 – correct. So many details. His heart thumped.
His left hand slipped into the pocket of his pants. His fingers closed around a four-leaf clover wrapped in plastic that some of his gymnasts had given him. This he always touches for good luck. He remembered to slip it in his pocket Tuesday morning because ironically he had left it in his bag last Thursday when Raisman competed in the all-around competition. She finished fourth that day. He blamed the four-leaf clover.
Why was he always leaving things in his bag?
Now he needed that clover more than ever. Did he get the inquiry right? Had he left enough time?
The judges huddled around his form. They looked at a video screen, playing Raisman's routine frame-by-frame. There are no guarantees with an appeal. The judges might notice a flaw they had missed before. They might lower her score. Raisman might drop to fifth or sixth. But at the moment Raisman was standing alone on the arena floor thinking to herself: "I'm fourth again!" There was really nothing to lose.
Then the judges stood up. They had recalculated. One of them typed a set of numbers into a computer and suddenly the new result appeared on the arena's scoreboard: 15.066. This tied her with Romanian Catalina Ponor. They each now had the same difficulty score of 6.300, but Raisman's execution score was slightly higher. The bronze was hers.
A roar filled the arena stands. Raisman beamed.
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The coaches always raved about her dedication and how hard she worked yet that work never seemed to matter at the biggest moments. Most of her finishes at top events were fourth. It seemed that was her destiny as a gymnast. Forever fourth.
"It seems I've gotten fourth millions of times," she would later say.
But suddenly third, she was elated. She hugged Brestyan, who was still nervous from the near-miss of the first inquiry of his career.
"This time she feels 'OK this is my day,' " Brestyan later said of Raisman's mind at that moment.
An hour later, on the floor routine, Raisman felt a strange peace. She had wanted an individual medal so much that suddenly with one she was calm.
"I felt I had nothing to lose because I already had [a medal]," she would say.
And so she nailed her floor routine, hitting her high, twirling jumps, feet landing perfectly, legs straight, barely wavering, never slipping. When she was done there was another roar inside the arena. She knew this was good. The crowd knew it was good.
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A few minutes later, after everyone else had done their floor routines, she had gold.
Again, she hugged Brestyan. He smiled.
The four-leaf clover was still in his left pants pocket.
The carefully-prepared inquiry form was still in that manila folder deep in his bag.
And his gymnast, Aly Raisman – the one who always finished fourth – had the day of her life.
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