NBC Olympics.com – RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — The comeback began with a challenge. Look at the equipment all you want, Mihai Brestyan told Aly Raisman, but do not touch.
So Raisman didn't. For weeks. Brestyan needed to be sure Raisman was serious, so he put the three-time Olympic medalist through countless hours of cardio and plyometrics in 2014 designed to test her desire as much as her physical limits.
"If you don't control the body, the frustration is coming very fast," Brestyan said. "You can't do this. You can't do that. Pain here. Pain there. I didn't want to deal with the mind before I dealt with the body."
So Raisman pushed herself to the point of exhaustion — and sometimes beyond — while fighting a two-front internal battle: her fear of taking risks and her fear of failure in a seemingly chronic push-pull for supremacy. Here's the thing, though, the thing Brestyan knew the second Raisman walked back into the gym and told him she was ready: Raisman's fear of failure always wins. Always.
"You can't tell her she can't do something," Brestyan said.
And Brestyan also understood there was one more chip in play. Raisman's performance in London four years ago — gold in team and floor exercise, bronze on beam — opened doors for her she never saw coming, including a spot on "Dancing With The Stars" and a series of endorsement deals. There's no telling what another breakthrough moment in front of the world could lead to.
"The fame is going fast," Brestyan said. "In the gymnastics world you're famous for one year then you become like everybody else. She feels she did not accomplish the maximum she can do, so the pleasure of doing gymnastics and the pleasure of being famous, this is what brings her back. She likes to be famous."
It's a byproduct of Raisman's relentless drive, one that has the 22-year-old back on the Olympic stage for the loaded U.S. women's team. The young woman that 16-year-old teammate Laurie Hernandez occasionally calls "grandma" may also be the best gymnast on the planet not named Simone Biles.
Raisman, Biles and defending Olympic champion Gabby Douglas will all compete in the all-around when women's preliminary competition begins on Sunday, a prospect that hardly seemed possible as recently as this spring when Raisman appeared lost, her confidence shaken following a forgettable meet in Italy where she finished sixth overall and fifth among the Americans.
Yet there she was during podium training on Thursday, drilling Amanar vaults with precision while cementing her spot as the third all-around entry along with three-time world champion Biles and Douglas. The top eight teams qualify for Tuesday night's team final, with the top 24 individual finishers earning a spot in the all-around final next Thursday.
That list, however, comes with one very important caveat: only two gymnasts per country can make the cut. So while all three Americans should wind up in the top 10, the rules dictate one of them will be watching from the stands during the finals. The margin of error is extremely thin and Raisman has seen both sides up close.
Four years ago she and Douglas edged good friend and reigning world champion Jordyn Wieber during preliminaries, leaving Wieber in tears afterward. Last fall at the world championships, Raisman struggled during qualifying and wound up being the odd one out while Biles and Douglas went on to go one-two in the finals. This time it was Raisman who couldn't mask her disappointment, apologizing repeatedly to national team coordinator Martha Karolyi even as the Americans rolled to a team title.
Raisman buried herself even deeper in her work, though the initial returns were hardly promising. When she slogged to sixth at the Jesolo Cup in March, it seemed her odds of making an Olympic return were diminishing by the day. During the Secret Classic in June, Karolyi required Raisman to do the all-around while Biles and Douglas took on a lighter workload to help save them for the grind to come.
The message from Karolyi couldn't have been more obvious: it was time for Raisman to get it together. And just like that, she did.
Raisman was second at U.S. championships and a close third behind Hernandez at Trials. There was no secret formula. There never is when it comes to Raisman. Her answer to adversity is always the same: work until you're gassed then drag yourself to your feet and work some more.
"I did like eight million routines," she said.
Each one whittling away at the small mistakes that can save a tenth here or two-tenths there, particularly on uneven bars, easily her weakest event. It's no small feat for an admitted perfectionist who struggles at times to let missteps go.
In that way she's leaned on Biles, who will occasionally stop talking in mid-sentence to dart down the runway for one of her ceiling-scraping, judge-confounding vaults.
"I've found that the less I think and the more I just trust myself the better," Raisman said. "That's what Martha's really been working on with me and it's been helping a lot."
This is Raisman's last round. Probably. She laughed when someone suggested she stick around until Tokyo, joking Brestyan couldn't handle another four years by her side. So she'll drink in the moment, unleash a couple more of her physics-defying tumbling runs and embrace her role as the world's youngest "grandma."
"They can call me whatever they want," she said. "I just wanted to be on this team more than anything."