Last summer, Aly Raisman made history by becoming the first U.S. gymnast to earn Olympic gold on the floor exercise. Now the most decorated U.S. gymnast from the 2012 Olympic Games is attempting to conquer a different floor the ballroom dance floor as a contestant on season 16 of Dancing with the Stars.
Raisman, who made a cameo on the season 15 finale with her Fierce Five teammates to cheer on 2008 Olympic champion and DWTS champion Shawn Johnson, who was competing in an all-star season, was invited to join professional dance partner Mark Ballas as a full contestant this year.
Raisman and Mark Ballas are off to an impressive start on the show, consistently scoring in the top-three and having topped the leaderboard on last week’s show. While preparing for the fifth week of competition, Raisman spoke to TeamUSA.org about learning to dance, her new celebrity friends and her eventual return to gymnastics.
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Your next dance is the samba. How have rehearsals been going this week?
It’s a little bit more difficult for me. Mark thinks it’s one of the harder dances to learn on the show. You have to have a bounce and it’s all about finding that rhythm, so of course that’s really, really different than gymnastics. It’s been a little bit hard this week but I’m just working really hard so I can get it.
What was it like appearing on the Dancing with the Stars finale last season, and did you know you wanted to be on the show yourself?
When we went on with Shawn, it was really fun. I was really, really nervous to perform, but we had so much fun with Shawn and Derek (Hough, Johnson’s professional dance partner) and we just wanted to be there for them and hopefully help them win the mirror ball trophy. I definitely knew I wanted to do the show. The rehearsals were great; the atmosphere on the show is amazing.
How would you compare ballroom dancing and gymnastics?
It’s so different. You literally can’t compare the two. There’s nothing similar about the two. If you watch my floor routine, none of my dance in my beam or my floor is like anything used on the show.
What advice did Shawn give you about being on the show?
Just to have fun. She kept it really simple and said to have fun and enjoy yourself.
Do you think it’s a good sign for you that she won season eight?
Of course it makes me want to follow in her footsteps, but we’re completely different people so we’ll see. Hopefully I make it as far as she did.
Which is more physically demanding ballroom dancing or gymnastics?
What is your relationship with Mark like?
Mark and I have a really great relationship. He’s really, really fun, he knows how to push me, but he also knows when to back off and make it more of a light and fun day. We have a really great connection. We have a lot of fun together, we’re always laughing in rehearsals.
Which of the other celebrities on the show are you closest to?
Kellie (Pickler, a country singer) and Jacoby (Jones, a wide receiver for the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens). I think everyone’s really great, but those two I hang out with a lot. Also, (boxer) Victor (Ortiz’s) partner Lindsay (Arnold), she’s close to my age, so we’re close friends too. Everyone’s really nice and we all have a lot of fun together.
What is it about Kellie and Jacoby that helped you all bond?
Kellie’s really, really nice, she’s really sweet. I think we’re all in the same boat. We don’t know what we’re doing, but we’re trying, and we’re working hard and having fun. Me and Jacoby, we’re both athletes so we both definitely bond over that. We both have really great work ethics and we’re both competitive. He’s really, really fun; he has a great personality and he’s really fun to be around.
What was it like meeting fellow Olympic champion Dorothy Hamill (who was also on the show but withdrew in the second week due to injury)?
Being with Dorothy Hamill was really cool, she’s such an amazing woman. I have so much respect for her. I’m really sad that she can’t be on the show and I wish her a speedy recovery. She’s just really, really nice, really sweet. We definitely bonded a lot. We’re both really into fashion so hopefully one day we’ll have time to go shopping together.
Who do you see as your biggest competition on the show?
Of course (actress) Zendaya, she’s amazing, Kellie and Jacoby. They’re great, great dancers. I think the competition is very tough this season. Kellie has amazing lines. Jacoby really gets into character and is a great performer. Zendaya is just an amazing, amazing dancer. Her routines always amaze me; I could watch them a million times.
What have you learned about yourself through being on this show and learning to dance?
I think the thing that’s the most surprising is I feel like I’ve improved a lot. We’re only at week five and I feel like I’ve improved so much. I feel like I can really connect with the music and really feel it. In the beginning, I felt like I was a little more embarrassed to really connect with the music. I didn’t know if I was doing it right, but now I realize there is no way of doing it wrong or right. It’s all about how you interpret is, so that’s been the biggest thing for me, and I feel like I’ve improved a lot so I’m really happy.
Last week’s theme was “best year of my life.” On the show, you said the best year of your life was 2012 and you used the emotions you went through on your journey to the Olympic Games in your dance. How did it feel being at the top of the leaderboard with that dance?
It felt really good to be at the top of the leaderboard. We worked really, really hard and the routine that I did really meant a lot to me. It was about the hard work and the sacrifices and determination it took to get to the Olympics. I was really glad that because it was the best year of our life I didn’t do a happy routine. Mark was so creative and he dug deep and allowed me to go there and show how hard it was. It felt really good and hopefully we can keep it up, but I’m not really thinking about being at the top right now. It’s still only week five so we still have a ways to go; (I’m) just taking it one week at a time and hopefully I’ll be back for more dances.
What was it like reliving the emotions of your Olympic journey?
It felt really good. I had to put myself back into the harder days, where you really push yourself and you feel exhausted and like nothing is working, no matter how many times you try. It felt good to go back into that, because if I hadn’t gone through that, I wouldn’t be where I am today. All that hard work paid off, so it felt good to remind myself how hard I worked.
You had two very important fans in the audience last week: Gabby Douglas and Kyla Ross. What did it mean for them to be there supporting you?
Having Gabby and Kyla in the audience meant so much to me to have their support. I think they had a lot of fun. They were in the front row, so I could see them the whole time. It meant a lot to me. I miss them a lot and I wish that we could hang out more often.
Speaking of Gabby and Kyla, you haven’t ruled out a return to competition. Any thoughts on when you’ll return to the gym?
I’m thinking at the end of this summer.
Are the Rio 2016 Olympic Games on your mind?
Yeah, that’s definitely the plan, so hopefully I’ll be able to compete there.
What do you think it will take for your body to last another three years in such a demanding sport?
Do the same thing I’ve always done work hard, eat healthy, do a lot of conditioning to make sure I’m strong and get good rest in between workouts.
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