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Aly Raisman takes advice from Tom Brady, eyes another Olympics

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The double standard didn’t hit Aly Raisman fully until she found herself talking to New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. You know, as one does.

The three-time Olympic medalist, all of 22, was trying to explain to Brady the long odds she faced of making it to Rio de Janeiro this summer for the 2016 Games. Brady, a four-time Super Bowl winner still going strong in his late 30s, just didn’t get it.

“I was like, `I’m too old,”‘ Raisman said. “Tom said, `No. you’re not.’ And it’s like, when quarterbacks win the Super Bowl, they don’t ask them if they’re done.”‘

Maybe because American gymnasts on the other side of their 20th birthday usually are.

Since Martha Karolyi took over as national team coordinator in 2001, the window for the top American women to compete at the highest level has been limited to a gymnastics version of “one and done.” No U.S. female gymnast who made her Olympic debut under Karolyi’s guidance has come back to do it again four years later. That’s due to a variety of factors, from health concerns to a seemingly endless stream of fresh faces.

Karolyi’s job is to win gold medals, preferably lots of them. And while the U.S. is so deep that any five-woman combination of the top Americans would be favored to stand on top of the podium during the Olympic team final, Karolyi won’t be satisfied getting there by a point or two. She wants to leave no doubt.

Yet Raisman and defending Olympic all-around champion Gabby Douglas – closing in on her 21st birthday – are still here. Press them on why and usually the response is some variation of “why not?”

“I’ve got the rest of my life to just chill back and lay back,” Douglas said.

The goal is to delay the start of the next chapter for as long as possible, even though there is scant evidence of American women staying at the top beyond one Olympic cycle. For proof of how hard it is, look no further than Douglas and Raisman’s other “Fierce Five” buddies from London – all teenagers when they overwhelmed the field to join 1996’s “Magnificent Seven” as the only Americans to win team gold.

In the afterglow, all five talked about giving it another shot. Instead, London turned out to be the last stand for 2011 world all-around champion Jordyn Wieber, who retired due to injury and is now at UCLA, where she serves as the most overqualified student manager in the country for the school’s women’s gymnastics team. McKayla Maroney (Google “McKayla Maroney is not impressed” for a reminder) hasn’t competed since winning gold on vault at the 2013 world championships. Kyla Ross, just 15 in London, won a handful of medals at worlds in 2013 and 2014 but stepped down from the elite program earlier this year after a subtle but steady decline in form and is now prepping to join the Bruins in the fall.

Raisman and Douglas sacrificed the chance to compete in college when they turned professional before London. Their Olympic success opened up the kind of lucrative financial opportunities they’d have had to pass up if they held onto their amateur status as Ross did.

They game-planned expertly, taking a break after the Games to cash in on their celebrity while continuing to keep an eye on Rio off in the distance, opting to hit “pause” instead of “stop.” Douglas oversaw a film based on her life and is currently being followed around by reality TV cameras chronicling her bid to become the first woman to repeat as Olympic all-around gold medalist in nearly 50 years.

Raisman stopped by “Dancing With The Stars.” There were apparel deals and distractions, all while current three-time reigning world champion Simone Biles led the next wave of girls ready to fill the void. Douglas bounced from training in Iowa to Los Angeles back to Iowa before resettling in Columbus. Raisman’s longtime coach, Mihai Brestyan, put her through months of conditioning before clearing her to do a single tumbling pass.

They returned to competition at the same meet in Italy in March 2015, helped the Americans win gold at the 2015 world championships and head to this week’s U.S. championships in St. Louis – the last warm-up before the Olympic Trials in San Jose next month – very much in the mix.

Douglas captured the American Cup in New Jersey and the Jesolo Cup in Italy this spring. Raisman won gold at the U.S. Classic in Connecticut earlier this month, albeit with Douglas and Biles competing in just two events instead of the usual four.

Douglas and Raisman, who has a floor exercise gold medal and a bronze on balance beam to go with the team gold the Americans won in London, know not to get ahead of themselves. They remember the end of Nastia Liukin and Alicia Sacramone‘s storied careers. A member of the silver-medal winning 2008 Olympic team, Sacramone, 24, was pointed toward London when she tore her Achilles in the days before the 2011 world championships. She returned to competition in less than eight months hoping to make the cut as an event specialist. She couldn’t.

“I just had this feeling,” Sacramone said. “I just don’t think I’m going to make it. People weren’t talking to me. … It was just a mix of being like, `Yep, I’m being pushed out the door.”‘

Liukin, the defending Olympic champion, held out hope until her throbbing shoulders finally gave out on the uneven bars, her signature event. She rose and saw a standing ovation through tears. She was 22.

Both were well past their peaks by American standards but practically neophytes compared to some of their international competitors. Oksana Chusovitina of Uzbekistan turned 41 on June 19, seven weeks before her seventh Olympics.

“We are woman, we say one thing and change our mind,” Chusovitina joked at the world championships in Scotland last fall.

Daniele Hypolito of host Brazil will be 32 in September. Romania’s Catalina Ponor came out of retirement in her late 20s and may be the only Romainian female gymnast in Rio – a month before her 29th birthday – after the longtime powerhouse stunningly failed to qualify as a team. Ponor returned in part out of duty, yet her presence highlights the hardening gap between the U.S. and most of the rest of the world.

One of the reasons gymnasts like Chusovitina and Ponor keep making their way back is because their country lacks the competitive depth to make them replaceable. That’s not the case in the U.S. – which is what makes Raisman and Douglas’ bids so spectacular.

“People think if you make a comeback you’re going to fail,” Douglas said. “And that’s not the case.”

MORE: Ten gymnasts to watch at P&G Women’s Championships

Iris Cummings, last living 1936 U.S. Olympian, has flown ever since Berlin

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Iris Cummings is one of the last living members of a historically significant, global group: athletes who competed at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. She is the only U.S. Olympian from those Games believed to still be alive.

Cummings, a 99-year-old who still swims regularly, was one of 46 U.S. women (along with 313 U.S. men) who competed at the Berlin Olympics, best known for Jesse Owens triumphing in the face of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany.

Since swimmer Adolph Kiefer‘s death in May 2017, the breaststroker Cummings and canoeist John Lysak were the last living 1936 U.S. Olympians. Olympic historians recently learned that Lysak died in January at 105 years old (which Lysak’s family confirmed this week). Canadian Paul Tchir of the OlyMADMen keeps a list of the oldest living Olympians here.

Lysak, born in New Jersey, turned 4 years old when his mom died in 1918 due to the flu pandemic. He was orphaned by his father, overwhelmed with taking care of a farm and four children.

Lysak got a bike to handle a paper route as a boy. That allowed him to sneak down to the Hudson River and row with homemade boats with his younger brother, Steven, who became a 1948 Olympic gold and silver medalist.

“I couldn’t swim, but I floated with a log,” Lysak told NBC Sports for the 2016 film “More than Gold,” about Owens and the 1936 Olympics. “I grew up paddling.”

He specialized at the Yonkers Canoe Club, made the Olympic team and finished seventh in a 10km doubles event with James O’Rourke in Berlin. Lysak later became a Marine and served during World War II.

Lysak spent his last years in California, where Cummings learned to swim off the Pacific beaches as a girl around the time of the Great Depression.

Cummings credited an ability to become an Olympian and one of the first women to fly U.S. military aircraft to her parents, who met while serving in France during World War I. Her father was a medic and sports doctor. Her mother a member of the American Red Cross canteen service.

She said her father, an all-around athlete, gave up a chance to try out for the first modern Olympics in 1896 to attend Tufts University School of Medicine.

“My mother provided the intellectual and academic inspiration from her rare perspective as a woman college graduate and a high school language teacher when very few women ever went to college,” Cummings told NBC Sports in an interview for “More than Gold.”

In 1928, Cummings’ dad took her to her the National Air Races at what is now Los Angeles International Airport.

“I watched Charles Lindbergh at the peak of his fame fly in the air show,” she said.

In 1932, at age 11, Cummings was introduced to the Olympics in person. Her dad was a track and field official at those Los Angeles Games.

Iris Cummings
Iris Cummings (center) competed in the 200m breaststroke at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. (Courtesy Iris Cummings)

All of Cummings’ swimming up to age 13 came in the ocean due to a lack of pools. But from 1934 to ’36, she developed into an Olympian in the breaststroke. In 1936, a 15-year-old Cummings was offered a paid-for, round-trip, cross-country train ticket to swim at a national championships in Long Island, N.Y.

“My mother had to borrow money to buy her railroad ticket to accompany me,” she said.

In a telegraph after nationals, Cummings was told by a California club coach to stay back East for five weeks before Olympic Trials (also on Long Island) because they had no money to send her back and forth again.

“So my mother figured out how we could stay with my grandmother in Philadelphia with almost no place to swim,” Cummings said. They found a country club pool, where she swam after hours while a janitor cleaned.

Cummings placed third in the 200m breast at trials to make the team as its youngest member in an individual event. (Today, only the top two at trials per individual event make the Olympics.)

“They stated, ‘You have made the team, but we don’t have enough money to send all of you,'” Cummings said. “‘The S.S. Manhattan sails in five days. Get out and raise as much money as you can from your hometown.’ My mother and I telegraphed our local newspaper, and a small amount was sent in from Redondo Beach.”

Olympic team members took a 10-day trip on the ship to Germany. Swimmers had one 20-foot-by-20-foot pool in which to train while at sea.

“They pumped the saltwater into it, and it sloshed around as the ship rolled,” Cummings said in an LA84 Foundation interview.

After arriving in Hamburg, U.S. athletes took a boat train that had swastikas on it out of the port.

“Most of us were quite aware of the evolving difficulties or however you want to classify the rise of Nazism in Germany,” said Cummings, adding that U.S. swim coach Charlotte Epstein previously boycotted attending the Olympics. “We’d heard the same rumors [about a U.S. boycott]. We were all wondering if the Olympic committee was going to take action before the boat sailed. That had come up in most everyone’s minds.”

At the Opening Ceremony, Cummings was bored by speeches and instead said she took pictures of the Hindenburg flying above. She had no fear about being there.

“The concerns were from nations that had proximity to the situation like a Belgium, or Holland or Austria,” she said. “We’ve got this passport, I know Margie [Marjorie Gestring, a gold-medal diver at age 13] and I looked at this and said, we’ve got this special passport. They can’t touch us.”

Most of Owens’ events took place before Cummings was eliminated in the first round of the 200m breast. She nonetheless took advantage of passes for athletes to watch track and field at the Olympic Stadium. She saw all of Owens’ races, sitting in an athlete section about 15 or 20 rows above Hitler’s box.

“Whenever [Hitler] came in, we could see him down there,” she said. “He wasn’t very far away.”

Iris Cummings
(Courtesy Iris Cummings)

Eight decades later, Cummings still remembered the crowd cheering for Owens after his victories.

“The whole stadium was rooting for Jesse,” she said.

Soon after the team returned to the U.S., Cummings began attending the University of Southern California. She enrolled in a pilot training program in 1939, earned her license the next year and worked as a flight instructor during the war. Then she became a pilot for the AAF Ferry Command in the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron, later included in the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs).

“None of us thought there were going to be Olympics in ’40,” she predicted, correctly. Not in 1944, either.

She estimated that she’s flown more than 50 types of airplanes.

“There were only 21 of us [women] who ever flew the P-38,” she said, “and there were only four of us who ever flew the P-61 Black Widow.”

After the war, marriage to Howard Critchell and childbirths, Cummings continued to race planes. She developed curricula for the Federal Aviation Administration, founded an aeronautics program at Harvey Mudd College and was inducted into the National Flight Instructors Hall of Fame, among many honors.

“I’ve been flying 76 years, and it’s a privilege to just be around,” she said shortly before she stopped piloting in 2016.

Cummings still flies as a passenger with a former student.

“It’s a treat to be up there with the elements and appreciate it all,” she said. “It’s you and the air movement and the wind and what you can do with your airplane.”

MORE: Wyomia Tyus’ Olympic protest resonates 52 years later

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NBA participation in Tokyo Olympics could be limited, Adam Silver says

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NBA commissioner Adam Silver said the Tokyo Olympics’ effect on the league’s schedule planning for 2021 is unclear, but that it’s possible that Olympic participation may be limited.

“There are a lot of great U.S. players, and we may be up against a scenario where the top 15 NBA players aren’t competing in the Olympics, but other great American players are competing,” Silver told Bob Costas on CNN on Tuesday. “Obviously, there are many NBA players who participate in the Olympics from other countries. That’s something we’re going to have to work through. I just say, lastly, these are highly unique and unusual circumstances. I think, just as it is for the Olympic movement, it is for us as well. We’re just going to have to sort of find a way to meld and mesh those two competing considerations.”

Silver said his best guess is that the next NBA season starts in January with a goal of a standard 82-game schedule and playoffs. A schedule has not been released.

In normal NBA seasons that start in late October, the regular season runs to mid-April and the NBA Finals into mid-June.

The Tokyo Olympic Opening Ceremony is July 23. If an NBA season is pushed back two or three months to a January start, and the schedule is not condensed, the Olympics would start while the NBA playoffs are happening.

The current NBA season is in the conference finals phase in an Orlando-area bubble after a four-month stoppage due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“It is a factor in our planning,” Silver said of the Olympics. “It would be tough for us to make a decision in January based on the Olympics happening on schedule when that’s so unclear.”

The NBA has participated in every Olympics since the 1992 Barcelona Games. Monday was the 29th anniversary of the announcement of the first 10 members of the original Dream Team on an NBC selection show (hosted by Costas).

Before the NBA era, U.S. Olympic men’s basketball teams consisted of college players.

MORE: When Michael Jordan lost in wheelchair basketball to Paralympian

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