Preparing for the 2012 Olympic gymnastics trials has been all Alexandra "Aly" Raisman has thought about for the last four years. Scratch that – 16 years.
The 17-year-old, Massachusetts-bred gymnast and member of Team Kellogg stepped out onto her first blue, springboard floor at the ripe age of 18 months old. Too young to start tumbling, you ask? She'll tell you otherwise.
"I'll have 17 years of gymnastics," said Raisman, who was chosen for the U.S. Olympic team on Sunday. "And I have so much experience."
Nobody can argue with that. The powerhouse competed at the 2010 and 2011 world championships, helping her team snag the gold medal in 2011 with her bronze-medal finish in floor exercise.
For Raisman, age and experience are a package deal. "If I had tried [for] the Olympics any younger … I wouldn't have been as prepared as I am right now," she explained. "But there are definitely a ton of juniors out there, all around the world and in the USA, that if there was no age limit, they could definitely make the Olympic team."
The International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) requires that gymnasts be 16 years old or have a birth date before the golden date of Jan. 1, 1997, to compete at the 2012 Summer Games.
For some elite-level gymnasts, this means they won't be packing their bags for London. Raisman points to 14-year-old competitor Katelyn Ohashi, the 2011 U.S. Junior National champion and a three-time U.S. Junior National team member, who she says has the skill set to compete at the Olympics but doesn't make the age cutoff.
The age-old controversy is nothing new. At the 2008 Olympic Games, He Kexin, a member of the Chinese women's gymnastics team, was the target of an investigation by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and FIG over conflicting newspaper stories and documents that suggested she was only 14 years old, therefore making her ineligible for Olympic competition.
Kexin scored two gold medals at the Games, and the IOC and FIG ultimately ruled that she was old enough to compete, although skeptics still remain.
"Sometimes when we do travel to other countries, the Chinese and sometimes even the Russians, look really, really young and it is really suspicious," Raisman said.
"I think everyone knows that the USA would never ever send anyone that was underage. USA always plays by the rules, and if [other countries] don't decide to … I mean we have to be ready for anything. It is unfair, but that is kind of the way it is."
Raisman said the controversial teams will be among the United States' biggest competition going into the 2012 Games.
"I definitely think that USA needs to watch out for Russia because in 2010, they beat us [at the world championships]," she said.
Although the U.S. team came fighting back at the 2011 world championships and nabbed a gold-medal victory by edging out the Russian team by a mere four points.
Despite last year's win on the world stage, Raisman noted, "That doesn't mean that they [the Russians] are not working hard at home. I am sure they have a couple of juniors that are coming up that are really good."
Also on the U.S. team's radar is the Chinese and Romanian squads, which Raisman said have talented teams that perform great gymnastics.
But the U.S. team will be ready to throw down the gauntlet at the North Greenwich Arena in London with a mixture of new blood like Raisman and reigning all-around world champion Jordyn Wieber.
"It is going to be a really tough competition, but I think USA is very well prepared, and at the training camps everyone looked really amazing," Raisman said. "Everyone is working really hard, so hopefully it will go really well for us."
A determined Raisman trained 35 hours per week to make her Olympic dream come true.
"I just stay focused, and I always think about gymnastics," she said. "I am just doing what I always do … working really hard and pushing myself to the maximum and keeping myself motivated."
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