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)