Gabby Douglas – Our champion and pioneer of women’s gymnastics
Young, Gifted & Black Series
By Taki S. Raton
She took the lead on Thursday, August 2, 2012 in London that would claim notable writings in national, global and most significantly in African American sports and historical text, news print accounts and in featured popular culture tabloids.
She is young, she is gifted, and she is Black. Gabrielle (Gabby) Christina Victoria Douglas effortlessly outpointed her competition to become the first African American to win the Olympic women’s individual all-around gymnastics event and became the fourth U.S. gymnast to capture this coveted all-around title following Mary Retton in 1984, Carly Patterson in 2004, and Nastia Liukin in 2008.
This would be the 16-yearold’s second gold medal of the London Games coming two days after her and her “Fierce Five” teammates – Aly Raisman, Jordyn Wieber, Kyla Ross, and McKayla Maroney – gave the United States its first Olympic victory since 1996.
President Barack Obama made a telephone call to London on Wednesday, August 1 with a note of congratulations to the team on their accomplishment. In anticipation of her scheduled competition the following day, he is quoted as saying to Douglas: “You just tore it up. I know how hard you worked to get there. Keep at it. Stay cool.”
Published accounts of her magnificent Thursday achievement reveals that she finished with a score of 62.232, just 0.259 ahead of Russian competitor Victoria Komova who took the silver. Russia’s Aliya Mustafina won the bronze.
In the first of her four routines, Douglas acquired the overall lead on the vault landing a meet-best of 15.966. She easily managed to maintain the gap on the uneven bars with a 15.733, followed by a brilliant performance on the balance beam where she scored a 15.500 to earn a 0.326 lead going into the floor exercise.
To the rhythms of “Bon, Bon” from the album “Amando” by American rapper Pitbull, Douglas in her final floor exercise rotation delivered a 15.033. Traditionally in such sporting engagements, it is held in gymnastics that scores would increase as the competition continues. Our Virginia Beach, Virginia native nervously waited for her competitors Raisman and Komova to complete their routines. However, in this case, sound traditions met its match as this 4 foot, 11 inch “Flying Squirrel” held her lead to win the gold.
U.S. women’s team coordinator Martha Karolyi gave her the descriptive “Flying Squirrel” nickname reflective of her awesome gymnastical artistic areal grace.
“The moment was both overwhelming and unbelievable,” writes Kelly Whiteside in his August 3 USA Today article “With gold, Douglas reigns as champ, pioneer”. He adds that her “stunning rise the last months, from a bundle of nerves to a confident star. The joy of winning the most coveted title in her sport. The rocket-ship ride from relative unknown to being recognized by the President, Oprah and the rest of the Olympic-watching world. Then there was this bit of social significance, no small matter: just 16, she is now a pioneer.”
Writing for Fox Sports, Bill Reiter on August 2 says that “This is history in the making, a 16-year-old taking her own shot at Olympic immortality, and it would culminate a remarkable journey for a gymnast who has been ascending to the top of the sport since the spring.”
In yet a second USA Today commentary, writer Christine Brennan asked Douglas how she would handle the pressure moving forward.
“Pressure?” replies Gabby with a radiant smile. “I love it. I love to stick the landing like there is no tomorrow. You stick the landing, and it’s like ‘Game on.’ I’m ready for this. My mom says I’m a fighter, a fierce competitor, and I think I am too.”
Prior to this past week’s gold-winning performance by the U.S. women’s team, only one African American female had ever earned an Olympic gold medal in gymnastics. Dominique Dawes was watching Douglas compete from the Olympic stadium press box, “trying to keep her hands from shaking,” writes Brennan.
Dawes earned this most coveted medal by being a part of the 1996 “Magnificent Seven” U.S. Women’s Gymnastics team along with the bronze for her performance in the individual floor competition that same year. Now sixteen years later, Dawes serves as an analyst for FoxSports.com.
In an August 3 Huff Post Black Voices article, Dawes is quoted: “I am so thrilled for Gabby. I’m so thrilled to change my website and take down the fact that I was the only African American woman with a gold medal in gymnastics.”
Brennan commented on the stamina of Douglas; of how as she talked to reporters, “she never broke down, never shed a tear. The way she celebrated was the way she competed, with a calmness and confidence that she has been exuding throughout this spectacular year.”
But the 35-year-old Dawes, on the other hand, reveals Brennan in her remarks on Gabby “couldn’t begin to control her emotions. The tears rolling down her cheeks were a long time coming.”
In her front page August 3 Tribune Olympic Bureau writing “Walking on air – Douglas is first African American to win all-around gold,” Diane Pucin records that until this year, Douglas had been relatively unknown. Quoting Karolyi, Douglas very rapidly climbed to the top:
“I don’t ever recall anybody this quickly rising from an average, good gymnast to a fantastic one. It has been so amazing to see,” she said.
But understandably, the road to London was riddled with both challenges and sporadic growth benchmarks. According to her official biography, when she was 3, her older sister, Arielle, also a former gymnast, taught her how to do a perfect cartwheel with straight legs. By the age of 4, Gabby had taught herself how to do a cartwheel with one hand.
In October of 2002 at the age of 6, she started formal gymnastics training at Gymstrada and just two years later at 8-years-old, Gabby went on to become 2004’s Virginia State Champion.
As cited in the Huff Post “Parents” edition, after five years of training at home in Virginia Beach, Gabby had a life changing moment, according to this August 2 post, “Gabby Douglas’ Mom, Natalie Hawkins: ‘I’ve Raised An Olympian…Wow.’”
After watching Shawn Johnson compete in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, Gabby knew that she needed a new coach, Liang Chow. She realized that her coaches at home had nothing more to teach her. The predictable issue became that Coach Chow trained thousands of miles away in West Des Moines, Iowa.
“No way, it’s not going to happen,” Natalie told her daughter. But after constant prodding from Arielle and her other siblings Jovelle and Johnathan, Natalie two years later agreed to let Gabby move to Iowa and pursue her dreams despite the understandable struggle with her decision.
“I know I need to do it, but how do I send my youngest child away to a family that I don’t know?” she recalls in the Huff Post writing.
At age 14, Douglas left Virginia Beach and her family to train with elite coach, Liang Chow in Iowa. She lived with a host family, the Partons, where she played big sister to their four girls. The Partons also have a daughter that train with Chow.
Her mother was getting more comfortable with her youngest being more than 3,000 miles away noting that she was “getting closer to representing her country and winning the gold.”
But in 2011, as reported in Huff Post, Gabby felt homesick and wanted to move back to Virginia. But the tables were this time turned and her mom would not let her. “She told me, life is not easy,” said Gabby. “You have to fight and just refuse to quit,” she remembers her mom saying.
Under Coach Chow’s tutelage, Gabby competed in her fist elite meet in the 2010 Covergirl Classic in Chicago, Illinois. That same year, she also competed in the Nastia Liukin Supergirl Cup, where she placed fourth in all-around. The then emerging medal gymnast made her senior debut in 2011 where she qualified for her first Senior National Championship in St. Paul, Minnesota. Gabby, at the nationals, became the 2011 Bronze Medalist on the uneven bars and earned a spot on the 2011-2012 Senior National Team.
That November, Gabby competed as a member of the 2011 World Championship Team that traveled to Tokyo and won team gold. In 2012, she competed in the AT&T American Cup in Madison Square Garden, and competed with the U.S. team at the Pacific Rim Championships where she won the gold on the uneven bars in the event finals. She then continued on to Chicago in May 2012 where at the Secrets Classics she tied for third place on the floor exercise and won gold for the uneven bars.
This past June, Gabby competed in the VISA Championships and finished second in all-around, just two tenths of a point behind the leader. She also won a bronze medal for her floor routine and gold for her uneven bars segment.
She would go on to compete at the Olympic Trials in San Jose, California where she came away with the only guaranteed spot on the Olympic Team by winning the competition.
And what now are the thoughts of mother Natalie Hawkins on her decision two years ago?
“I had to ask myself, was I going to be selfish? The only reason I had to keep her home was to keep her with me,” as recorded in Maggie Hendricks July 11 post “Gabrielle Douglas’ mother made a ‘gut-wrenching decision’ to get her daughter to the Olympics.”
“I made the right decision. I got it right, and you don’t know. It’s a gamble. I am so incredibly proud of her. I am in awe of what she can do.”
Gabby’s father, Staff Sgt. Timothy Douglas of the Air National Guard is currently serving in the 203rd Red Horse civil engineering squadron in Afghanistan. He did manage to make it to the Olympic trials in June, waving an American flag in the air for his daughter, Gabby and also contributed financially towards her training. In seeing Gabby perform, Douglas is quoted as saying:
“There’s an exuberance. There’s a feeling that you can’t describe. I just missed her so much. Sometimes, when she had a rough time, I’d tell her to hang in there. You know what it takes to be a winner; you know what your goals are. You just keep on your goals.”
When Dominique Dawes won gold in the team all-around in 1996 as one of Team USA’s Magnificent Seven, little Douglas had not yet turned one-year having been born December 31, 1995. And when asked what touched her the most regarding Gabby’s win, Dawes responded:
“It was the generation of young kids looking up to Douglas in the same way they did with me. That’s what’s so touching. As I was able to help Gabby, now she’s going to help a whole other generation of young girls and boys – African Americans, Hispanics, other minorities – to see the sport of gymnastics as an opportunity for them to excel.”