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Aly Raisman turns question mark into exclamation point

U.S. gymnast AlexandrRaisman displays her gold medal during podium ceremony for artistic gymnastics women's floor exercise final 2012 Summer Olympics

U.S. gymnast Alexandra Raisman displays her gold medal during the podium ceremony for the artistic gymnastics women's floor exercise final at the 2012 Summer Olympics, Tuesday Aug. 7, 2012, in London. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

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Updated: September 9, 2012 6:17AM

LONDON — You heard Aly Raisman before you saw her arrive at the news conference, thanks to the gold and bronze medals clanging together around her neck. It sounded like the ghost of Jacob Marley rattling his chains.

She was smiling. The turnaround in her demeanor was remarkable. The metamorphosis had started a few hours earlier with a question mark, written in ink.

Raisman’s score in the balance-beam competition Tuesday had flashed on the big screen: 14.966. It was good enough — or bad enough — for fourth place, a sickening development for someone who days earlier had finished fourth in the all-around competition after losing a tiebreaker for the bronze medal.

‘‘All I could think about when I got that score was that I was fourth again,’’ she said. ‘‘It’s definitely bittersweet being in fourth because you’re excited that you’re fourth in the world, but you just missed being on the podium.

‘‘I’ve done fourth place, like, a million times, especially at the world championships. I was fourth in the all-around two years in a row, and I was fourth on beam last year.’’

Marta Karolyi, the coordinator of the U.S. gymnastics program, and her husband, Bela, both screamed to Raisman’s coach to appeal the score. They thought the judges had undervalued the degree of difficulty of the routine. That’s when coach Mihai Brestyan wrote down the question mark next to the score and sent it to the judges.

That started the inquiry process. Just like in football, the judges went to the video. They ended up adding a tenth of a point, tying Raisman with Catalina Ponor of Romania at 15.066. This time, Raisman won the tiebreaker and found herself out of the dreaded fourth position.

‘‘It was redemption from the other night in the all-around,’’ she said. ‘‘I was in the exact same position, but it went in my favor this time.’’

That appeal had made all the difference. It was the difference between a bronze medal and nowhere on the balance beam. And it was the difference between confidence and doubt heading into the floor-exercise competition 90 minutes later.

Raisman won a gold medal in the floor, made possible, on review, by the bronze she mined from the beam.

‘‘Justice was made,’’ Marta Karolyi said. ‘‘And certainly psychologically, it was a great moment for Aly. I met her up there at the beam, and I told her, ‘I see these fantastic sparkling eyes again.’ I was sure she would do a good job on floor.’’

She did.

‘‘That’s the best routine I’ve ever done,’’ Raisman said.

It wrapped up a mixed meet for the Fierce Five — Raisman, Gabby Douglas, Jordyn Wieber, McKayla Maroney and Kyla Ross. Wieber, who many thought would win multiple gold medals here, didn’t win an individual medal. She struggled with a stress fracture in her leg. The U.S. women did win the team and all-around titles in the same Olympics for the first time.

Douglas will get the spoils that come with winning the all-around. But she wants people to know about the enormous stress that comes with being an Olympic gymnast, an amount of stress some of us think is unhealthy.

‘‘We’re 16-year-olds, and we have a lot of pressure on our shoulders, and that’s kind of a lot for a teenager,’’ she said. ‘‘So dealing with that is a little bit hard, but we learn how to deal with it.

‘‘It’s not about winning or losing; it’s just about putting your all into it. You made it here, and your dreams have come true. You just want to put your effort into it. You don’t lose; you just technically have a bad day or make mistakes. We all make mistakes. We’re human.

‘‘We’re definitely not losers because we’re like superheroes. We
do tricks like no one can do.’’

These superheroes can look very, very human at times. That’s how Raisman looked through most of these Olympics. Her parents had become a YouTube sensation, caught on camera screaming ‘‘Stick it!’’ over and over as their 18-year-old daughter competed in the uneven bars Sunday. It was funny, but that might have been the unhealthy stress Douglas was talking about.

For a long time, it looked as though Raisman was going to be the hard-luck story of these Games.

But then a coach wrote a question mark in ink on a piece of paper, setting in motion the machinery that produced an exclamation point.

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