By Stacy Parish, Children’s Department
Even if you don’t know a pommel horse from a polo pony, it’s nearly impossible not to be inspired by the amazing American gymnast Gabby Douglas. Gabby is the first African-American and the first woman of color from any nation to win a Gold medal in the individual gymnastics all-around competition; the fourth female American gymnast to win the Gold; and the first U.S. gymnast to receive both of those honors in a single Olympic Games, the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. Furthermore, she accomplished all of that before her 17th birthday. Douglas is also the first female reigning Olympic all-around champion to return to the World Championships and medal in the all-around since Elena Davydova in 1981.
Gabrielle Christina Victoria Douglas was born on New Year’s Eve 1995 in Virginia Beach, Virginia, the youngest of four children to Natalie Hawkins and Timothy Douglas. Gabby was raised by her mother and her siblings Arielle, Joyelle, and Johnathan, and it was Arielle who encouraged Gabby to begin tumbling and trying cartwheels and convinced their mother to allow Gabby to begin gymnastics lessons at age 6. Arielle said, “I taught her how to do a cartwheel, then the next day I saw her doing one-handed cartwheels and I thought, I didn’t teach you that!” Gabby’s undeniable talent for gymnastics soon became evident when at age 8 she won the Level 4 all-around gymnastics title at the 2004 Virginia State Championships.
In October 2010, Gabby moved halfway across the country from her home in Virginia to Iowa to train under Liang Chow, the 1990 World Cup Nationals champion for the Chinese men’s gymnastics team, at his prestigious Gymnastics and Dance Institute in West Des Moines. Gabby lived with a host family, Travis and Missy Parton and their four daughters, while undergoing intensive training with Chow in preparation for the 2012 Olympics. The blonde-haired, green-eyed Partons took Gabby in and treated her as one of their own, but needless to say, there were moments of culture shock. In her book “Grace, Gold & Glory: My Leap of Faith,” Gabby recounts how weird it was to go for days at a time in Iowa without seeing another person with a skin tone even close to her own. “When my Mom came to town, she and I started a joke about it,” Gabby said. They turned it into a game, a la the classic car trip game “Punch Buggy” —but instead of hitting the other on the arm when they spied a Volkswagen Beetle, Gabby and her mom would trade swats and say “Black person!”
In September 2011, while still not completely healed from a sprained hamstring and injured hip flexor, Gabby traveled to Texas to a World Championship verification camp at the facility owned by prominent gymnastics coaches Bela and Marta Karolyi. Gabby was chosen for a spot on the World Championship team at age 15, making her the youngest gymnast on the team. Her chances of making it to London were contingent upon a single competition, the 2011 World Championships in Tokyo. Team USA edged out Russia and China to win the gold, and Gabby’s performance on the uneven bar finals earned her the nickname “Flying Squirrel” from Marta Karolyi. Another hurdle to Gabby’s road to London had just been cleared.
Since Gabby’s meteoric rise from underdog to superstar, her personal brand—and her faith in God– has only gotten stronger. She has co-authored two books, created her own line of leotards called Gabbymojis, and appeared with her family in a docuseries on Oxygen called Douglas Family Gold. Her beautiful face has graced magazine covers such as Sports Illustrated, Time, Teen Vogue, People, and Essence, and endorsements for Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, Procter & Gamble’s “beauty brands,” Nike, and Mattel (Barbie), just to name a few. She cites former All-American collegiate football player and Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow as an inspiration to speak publicly about her strong Christian faith. Gabby has said, “I don’t think I could have done it if he hadn’t been so bold about his own faith during interviews.”
By the time you are reading this, the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, will be off by leaps and bounds (Faithful Readers, y’all know I couldn’t complete a blog without at least one pun) and Gabby and her Fierce Five teammates will once again be vaulting (oops, I did it again) toward their dreams of bringing home more American gold.
Sources and suggested reading:
- Awesome Athletes: Gabby Douglas by Jameson Anderson (J 92 DOUGLAS)
- “The Comeback Kid,” Teen Vogue, June/July 2016
- Gabby Douglas by Jon M. Fishman (J 92 DOUGLAS)
- Grace, Gold & Glory: My Leap of Faith by Gabrielle Douglas and Michelle Burford (J 92 DOUGLAS)
- Great Moments in Olympic Gymnastics by Blythe Lawrence (J 796.44 LAWRENCE)
- Raising The Bar by Gabrielle Douglas (J 92 DOUGLAS)
The opinions expressed here in this fourth installment of the “Amazing Female Athletes” series belong solely to the author and are in no way representative of any other WCPL employees, their families, friends, and coaches. Ms. Parish has visited London in the past, and has also been referred to as a squirrel, but that’s about where the similarities between the author of the blog and the subject of the blog come to an abrupt dismount.
By Stacy Parish, Children’s Department
The name Laila loosely translates to “night blooming flower” in Arabic, but Laila Ali is certainly no shrinking violet. (Author’s note: I’m going to start incorporating a drinking game into my blogs. Darling Reader, whenever you encounter one of my obnoxious puns, take a nice deep pull of whatever beverage you have close at hand. Please drink responsibly.)
Laila Amaria Ali was born on December 30, 1977 in Miami Beach, Florida, to famed boxer Muhammad Ali (nee Cassius Clay) and his third wife, Veronica Porsche-Ali. Laila is the eighth of her father’s nine children. One might think that Laila led an easy life as the child of a world-renowned athlete, but her childhood was anything but placid. Her parents divorced when she was 7, and Laila made a number of bad decisions as a rebellious teenager — fighting, ditching school, boosting her mother’s car, shoplifting, credit card fraud — and spent time in a juvenile detention center, youth group homes, and later, jail.
Laila decided to begin boxing at age 18, after having what she called “a revelation” while watching a women’s match that was a preliminary bout to a Mike Tyson fight. She began training in earnest, adding strenuous workouts to her already busy life of owning her own nail salon and working on a business degree at Santa Monica Community College. In January of 1999, Laila knew that a conversation with Muhammad Ali about her new endeavor was long overdue, as her ring debut was quickly approaching. Laila’s father, who by this time had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease (which many believe was exacerbated by the years of punishment he took from shots to the head in the boxing ring) was not at all happy that his daughter was following in his footsteps and entering into such a dangerous profession. Laila assured him that she would be fighting women, that she had Muhammad’s genetics, and that she would never again behave in a manner that would bring dishonor to him or to herself. After a long moment of stony silence, Muhammad spoke at last: “OK, come over here and show me your left jab.”
For her first professional boxing match on October 8, 1999 at Turning Stone Resort and Casino in Verona, New York, the 21-year-old Laila weighed in at 166 pounds, placing her in the Super Middleweight class. Laila’s first match was attended by many fans and journalists, primarily because she was Muhammad Ali’s daughter. Her opponent, April Fowler, described by WomenBoxing.com as an “out-of-shape novice,” was knocked out by Laila just 31 seconds into the first round. Laila’s boxing career was firmly launched, and she went on to compete in a total of 24 matches over the next eight years. She retired undefeated, after defeating Gwendolyn O’Neil by technical knockout in the first round in South Africa on February 2, 2007 in her last professional fight.
After retiring from boxing, Laila didn’t sit around counting her money and polishing her belts. She had already appeared in a music video for Canadian rock band Default and had guest starred on the George Lopez show, so her transition from professional athlete to professional actress was not a difficult one. (Author’s note: I wonder if, in addition to her boxing prowess, she inherited any of her famous father’s flair for theatrics.) In mid-2007, Laila was a participant in Dancing With The Stars; she partnered with Maksim Chmerkovskiy, and they finished the competition in third place, coming in behind Apolo Anton Ohno and Julianne Hough in first place and to Joey Fatone and Kym Johnson in second. In 2008, Laila hosted the revival of American Gladiators with former wrestler Hulk Hogan, and the two became close friends. In his memoir My Life Outside The Ring, Hogan credits Laila with saving his life when he was in a downward spiral of depression over his impending divorce and a family tragedy, and was self-medicating with rum and Xanax and becoming increasingly suicidal. “She called with no agenda, just to say hi and check on me,” Hogan said. “It snapped me out of it . . . (hearing) her voice saved my life.”
On July 23, 2007, Laila married former NFL player Curtis Conway, and they have two children together: Curtis, Jr. and Sydney. She continues to be a highly sought-after public speaker, and in addition to eloquence and athletic prowess, Laila also inherited her father’s philanthropic spirit. Muhammad Ali’s generosity was legendary, and Laila is very active in many charitable causes—Feeding America and Women’s Sports Foundation, to name just two. She is an inspiration to many, and earned her place in our “Amazing Female Athletes” series.
Sources and suggested readings:
- Laila Ali: Champion Boxer by Norman D. Graubart (J 92 ALI)
- Famous Families: Muhammed Ali and Laila Ali by Tim Ungs (J 92 ALI)
- Reach! Finding Strength, Spirit, and Personal Power by Laila Ali and David Ritz (92 ALI)
The opinions expressed here in this third installment of the “Amazing Female Athletes” series belong solely to the author and are in no way representative of any other WCPL employees or their families and friends. Additionally, the author neither floats like a butterfly nor stings like a bee, but she has in the past threatened to bite noisy or unruly patrons.
By Stacy Parish, Children’s Department
Soccer sensation. Olympic gold medalist. Social media star. Gorgeous product spokesperson. Savvy businesswoman. Published author. All of this and so much more encompasses the phenomenon that is Alexandra Patricia Morgan, or “Baby Horse,” as she was once called by her teammates on the US Women’s National Team for her unbridled (oh, y’all knew I couldn’t get through one of my blogs without at least one pun) speed and strength.
Alex was born on July 2, 1989 to Pamela and Michael Morgan and grew up in Diamond Bar, California, with two older sisters, Jeni and Jeri. Alex played multiple sports growing up, and began playing soccer at age 5 for the American Youth Soccer Association (AYSO), and began playing soccer at the club level for Cypress Elite, based in Orange County, at age 14. But it was long before then, at the age of 8, when Alex declared to her parents that she was going to be a professional soccer player and was going to represent the United States in the Olympic Games someday. She has certainly realized those lofty goals, and more.
At age 17, Alex was called up to play for the United States’ under-20 women’s national team, and she played for the Golden Bears at the University of California at Berkley, from 2007-2010. She finished her college career ranked third all-time in goals scored (45) for the Golden Bears, and graduated one semester early with a degree in Political Economy.
On January 11, 2011, Alex was the first pick overall in the Women’s Professional Soccer draft by the Western New York Flash. Never one to wait around for something to happen, Alex scored her first professional goal for the Flash in the team’s home opener against the Atlanta Beat on May 1, 2011, resulting in a 3-0 win for Alex’s new team. In ensuing years, Alex has been on the roster for the Seattle Sounders Women (along with US National teammates Hope Solo, Sydney Leroux, Megan Rapinoe, and Stephanie Cox) for the 2012 season; the Portland Thorns FC from 2013-2015; and was traded in October 2015 to expansion team Orlando Pride, where she is currently on the roster.
In addition to her professional play, Alex has been an integral part of the US Women’s National Team. She became a starting player for the US in January of 2012 in the final match of the CONCACAF (Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football) Olympic qualifying tournament. Once again, Alex asserted her dominance, scoring twice and providing two assists to teammate Abby Wambach that day, resulting in a 4-0 win over the Canadian hosts and securing her spot as a starter. Her prowess was crucial in the USWNT’s road to the final; she scored the winning goal in the semifinal against Canada in stoppage time during the 123rd minute of the game, sending the United States to the gold medal match against Japan. In that exhilarating 2-1 finish, Alex assisted on a Carli Lloyd header to secure the gold for the United States. For her excellence on the field, Alex was named by US Soccer as the 2012 Female Athlete of the Year, and she was honored by Diamond Bar High School by the retiring of her number, 13.
Lest you think that “Baby Horse” is a one-trick pony (sorry, sorry), you need to know that in addition to being a world-class athlete, Alex is also a published novelist. In 2012, she signed with Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing to write a series of books called The Kicks. The main characters are four female middle schoolers, and the books focus on themes of friendship, leadership, and (of course), soccer. The first novel of the series, Saving The Team, was released on May 14, 2013, and debuted at number 7 on the New York Times Best Seller list for Children’s Middle Grade. Alex has signed endorsement deals with Nike, Panasonic, Coca-Cola, and Bank of America and has appeared in advertisements for GNC, ChapStick, Bridgestone, and Nationwide Mutual Insurance Company. On January 24, 2016, Alex received the key to the city of her hometown of Diamond Bar, California.
Alex announced her engagement via Twitter to professional soccer player Servando Carrasco on December 9, 2013, and they were married on New Year’s Eve of 2014 in Santa Barbara, California, in the presence of their family, friends, and teammates. Alex brings the same tenacity that she demonstrates on the soccer pitch to fighting for pay equality for women athletes. She joined fellow USWNT teammates Carli Lloyd, Megan Rapinoe, Becky Sauerbrunn, and Hope Solo on March 31, 2016 in filing a formal complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against U.S. Soccer claiming the women’s team should be paid the same as the U.S. Men’s National team. “We ultimately decided to file this motion for all the little girls around the world who deserve the same respect as the boys,” Alex wrote. “They deserve a voice, and if we as professional athletes don’t leverage the voices we have, we are letting them down. We will not let them down.” This, darling readers, is one of the many reasons that Alex Morgan is not only an amazing athlete, but an amazing person.
Sources and suggested reading:
- Alex Morgan (J 92 MORGAN) by Jon M. Fishman
- World Soccer Legends: Alex Morgan (J 796.3340) by Illugi Jokulsson
- The Girls of Summer (796.3340 LON) by Jere Longman
- Saving The Team (J F MORGAN) by Alex Morgan
- Breakaway (J 92 MORGAN) by Alex Morgan
As ever, the opinions and viewpoints expressed here, in this second installment of my “Amazing Women Athletes” series, are the sole province of the author and not representative of any other WCPL employees, their families, or their housepets. Additionally, the author may have been witnessed in the past screaming obscenities in the general direction of her TV while the USMNT and USWNT are playing.
By Stacy Parish, Children’s Department
There you are, minding your own business, just trying to be an average teenager—daughter, sister, middle school student, hall monitor, drill team member—when your drill team coach suggests that you go check out a ballet class taught by her friend at your local Boys and Girls Club, the place where you hang out after school in order to avoid the grim, grimy two hotel rooms that you and your mother and your five siblings call home. So you go, and are an audience of one in the bleachers for a few weeks, until you summon the courage to stand at a ballet barre for the very first time. You spend an hour feeling like a “broken marionette,” awkward and clueless and a little overwhelmed, and then you put it all in the rearview mirror and scurry past that section of the gym for the next few days. But Cynthia, the dance instructor isn’t letting you off the hook that easily. You eventually drop your defenses to her relentless persuasion and begin taking classes in earnest, but you are still haunted by insecurity and doubt.
Then, something in you changes. Your confidence rises. You begin to believe what everyone else is telling you: that someday, you will dance in front of kings and queens, and that you will have a life that most people cannot even imagine.
You are a ballerina.
In case you haven’t twigged to it yet, the “you” in the vignette above is ballet dancer Misty Copeland, the first African-American woman to be promoted to principal dancer in the prestigious American Ballet Theatre’s history.
Misty Danielle Copeland was born on September 10, 1982 in Kansas City, Missouri, to Doug and Sylvia Copeland. She is the youngest of four siblings from her mother’s second marriage and has two younger siblings, one each from her mother’s third and fourth marriages. Misty has no childhood memories of her father; she didn’t see Doug Copeland from age 2, when Sylvia, a former Kansas City Chiefs cheerleader, left Doug and loaded Misty and her siblings onto a Greyhound bus bound for Bellflower, California until she was 22, when she was traveling the world with American Ballet Theatre. “From the time I turned two, my life was in constant motion,” Misty states in her memoir Life In Motion. And that statement is not an exaggeration. Misty’s childhood was unstable and turbulent, and she has said that in retrospect, she used to measure time through the sequence of her mother’s dependency upon an ever-changing string of men. “We Copelands were like a nomadic tribe: hardy, fiercely protective of our band, and adaptable. We clung tightly to one another.” Those familial bonds would be severely strained in Misty’s teen years, when she had to make an excruciating choice: legally declare her emancipation from Sylvia in order to continue her dancing, or give up her dreams and remain with her family.
A lengthy series of legal machinations ensued when Misty began emancipation proceedings from Sylvia, at the urging of her longtime instructor and mentor Cynthia Bradley, with whose family Misty had been living during the week for the past three years, and returning to her mother’s home, two hotel rooms at the Sunset Inn in Gardena, California, on the weekends. Sylvia retained the services of lawyer Gloria Allred and they claimed that Misty had been “brainwashed” by the Bradleys and that they turned Misty against Sylvia by belittling her intelligence. After several court hearings in autumn of 1998, the emancipation proceedings were dropped, as well as the restraining order and charges of stalking and harassment by Sylvia against the Bradleys. Misty would return to her mother’s custody, and she wouldn’t see Cynthia or Patrick Bradley again for more than a decade.
Misty completed high school in California, and in September of 2000 joined the ABT Studio Company, which is the American Ballet Theatre’s second company. In 2001 she was promoted to ABT’s Corps de ballet. She was sidelined for a year due to a lumbar stress fracture, but recovered and embarked upon a series of beautiful, memorable roles in La Bayadere, Swan Lake, and Cinderella, to name only a few. In August of 2007, she was promoted to soloist, one of the youngest dancers ever to achieve that distinction. She was a standout among her dancing peers and appeared in The Firebird, Don Quixote, Le Corsaire, The Nutcracker, Coppelia, and Sleeping Beauty, to name just a few of the numerous productions she danced in over the ensuing years. On June 30, 2015, she was promoted to principal ballerina, the first African-American woman to achieve such an honor in the 75-year history of the American Ballet Theatre.
Misty currently resides in New York City with her fiancé Olu Evans, a Manhattan attorney. You can read more about Misty’s amazing life in the 2014 memoir she co-authored with Charisse Jones titled Life In Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina (Simon and Schuster; 92 COPELAND.) She also co-wrote a children’s picture book, Firebird (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, J E COPELAND), and in November 2015 she announced plans to publish a health and beauty guide tentatively titled Ballerina Body.
*** author’s note: this is the first in a series I’m going to call “Amazing Women Athletes.” The theme for this year’s Summer Reading Program is sports-related, so, you know. I take my inspiration wherever I can find it.