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Gabby Douglas: Rewriting the Great American Hero

 



It is 2012, my face is glued to the TV screen as I watch gymnast Gabby Douglas compete at the London Olympics. Along with the rest of America, I watch as she leaps, bounds, and prances across the mat in the Women’s individual all-around floor competition. She looks gorgeous in her pink leotard with rhinestone detailing. As a young ballet dancer, I am in awe of her as she executes grand leaps and balanced turns which resemble my own craft. As she finishes her final trick, landing it seamlessly, a big smile appears on her face. Her hands fly into the air, and she jumps around looking into the ecstatic crowd. I sit there amazed by the fact that she was born in Newport News, Virginia, only 30 minutes away from where I grew up. As a kid growing up in the same area, eating at the same places, and shopping at the same stores essentially meant we had a special connection. She taught me that anything is possible.

         Gabby Douglas’ journey to the Olympics was not easy. In a sport that is considered to be reserved for affluent families, it is not often open to those who come from Gabby Douglas’ background. Her mother worked hard to support Douglas and her three other siblings on her own. She often worked two jobs and picked up extra shifts, when able, to give Douglas the opportunities she needed to compete. Douglas never took these opportunities for granted. In 2004, the year I was born, Douglas won the Level 4 all-around gymnastics Virginia State Champion. Shortly after, she was enlisted onto the TOP’s A team, a programme to assess gymnasts’ physical abilities; those who make a team get to go to an all-expenses paid training camp in Houston, Texas. Over the next few years, Douglas continued to dazzle her peers and coaches as she climbed to the top of the rankings, winning competition after competition.

         In 2010, Gabby Douglas made the tough decision to move away from her family, who were still living in Virginia, to train with elite trainer Liang Chow in Iowa. Douglas first noticed Liang Chow in the 2008 Olympics when he was trainer to Shawn Johnson. At that moment, she had vowed he would be her trainer. Together they worked vigorously to get Douglas to the 2012 London Olympics. Fighting through injuries, setbacks, and poor performances, until they finally arrived at the grand stage, where I first met Gabby Douglas.

         Gabby Douglas was the shining star of the 2012 Olympics. She became the first African American to win the all-around title and the first American to claim gold in the team and individual all-around events. Almost in an instant, she became the most recognizable face in America. Her face was plastered on cereal boxes, I watched her on Disney Channel, and streaming across every news channel. She was America’s hero. Everywhere you looked Gabby Douglas was smiling back at you like Icarus looking back to his father.

In 2016, Douglas returned to the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, but there was no grand homecoming for the star. Thousands of internet comments taunted her for her hair, facial expressions, and supposed jealousy towards teammates. Douglas was pictured in the arena with a hurtful look on her face contemplating how she had gone from an American hero to the most unpatriotic athlete at the Olympics. Douglas won only one gold that year in the team all-around division. She placed sixth in the uneven bars, a category she dominated in during the London Olympics. Douglas left the Olympics confused and frustrated. “I didn’t want to end it that way,” she stated on Time Magazine podcast. She did not return for the 2020 Olympics. It seemed like the great American hero had been burned.

During her time away from the Olympics, Douglas decided to focus on her mental health. She opened up about her journey on Instagram, “I have carried a heavy weight on my back for quite some time and it has weighed me down, physically, mentally, and emotionally.” She continues, “So many people have tried to crush and break me. I no longer want to run, but fight and heal.” Many professional athletes have begun to talk about their struggles with mental health. Discussing how the pressure to perform can become unbearable. A fellow Olympian, Simone Biles, discussed her mental health battle on Instagram, “I truly do feel like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders at times.” These courageous athletes are working hard to prove that mental health is just as important as physical health.

Douglas has overcome considerable adversity in her career. Early on she faced attacks from cyberbullies about her hair, features, and attitude, many linked to racial stereotypes. Sadly, she was also a sexual abuse victim of Larry Nassar, the team doctor for the United States Women’s National Team. She speaks about her struggles during these times, “For many years I had an ache in my heart.” A week ago, Gabby Douglas announced her return to competitive gymnastics with her eyes set on competing in the 2024 Paris Olympics. If she returns, she will be the oldest American woman, at 28 years old, to compete for the United States National team since the 1950s.  She will also face some fierce competition in qualifying rounds with Simone Biles and reigning all-around champion Sunisa Lee also vying for a spot. Gabby Douglas said she is training for all four apparatus but taking a little extra time to perfect her uneven bars – her notorious event. When I heard the news of her comeback, the nine-year-old girl inside me screamed, “GO GET ‘EM GABBY!”

 

 

 Image: Wikimedia Commons

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