One In 3 Million
July 22, 2016
On any given year in the United States, over three million girls in leotards, between the ages of six and 17, partake in gymnastic classes. They slap on chalk, twirl through blisters and dream of flipping, twisting and sticking their way onto the top of a podium and the front of a cereal box. A vast archive of YouTube videos featuring tiny sequined tumblers underscores this astonishing number.
By 18, 80% of these dreamers will have dropped the sport. At this age, Gabby Douglas was preparing to return to the mat, having won that coveted gold and the endorsements to match. But instead of enjoying newly minted adult freedoms, Douglas was once again waking at 7:30am, eating breakfast prepared by her grandmother. Arriving at the gym for an 8am start, she would stretch before beginning her rounds: beam, floor, vault and bars. Conditioning, lunch and a short afternoon break followed. While her younger teammates tackled their schoolwork, Douglas rested, taking advantage of her status as a recent high school graduate. By 2pm, she was back on the mat, focusing on two events, either beam-bars or beam-floor, before heading home. She has repeated this routine — three six-hour days, three four-hour days and one day off per week — for the past two years.
Douglas first became a statistic in 2002 in Virginia Beach. “I started [gymnastics] when I was about six years old,” she recalls. “I went to my first class and I just fell in love with the gym.” At that point, Douglas had already been turning cartwheels around the house for three years, leading her older sister to urge her mother, Natalie Hawkins, to enroll her younger daughter at a local gym.
Two years after initiating formal training, Douglas claimed the Level 4 all-around state title and continued to rise, buoyed by her natural talent and competitive nature but rankled by self-doubt. “She would win meets,” her mother remembers, “but she wasn’t quite confident in her abilities. I would tell her that she was an amazing competitor and could be at the top of the podium as long as she believed in herself!”
The diametric equation of accomplishment and insecurity came to a head in 2008 while mother and daughter watched the women’s gymnastic competition at the Beijing Games. The family discussion evolved from Douglas’ denial that she could perform the skills being executed onscreen to her admission that perhaps if she had the right coach, perhaps that exact one she saw on TV, she could compete at that level.
Disallowing her daughter from taking on the “fear of failure” mentality that had inhibited her in the past, Hawkins called up the aforementioned coach and shortly thereafter her daughter was settled with a host family in West Des Moines, Iowa, training under his tutelage. One step closer towards to her once pie-in-the-sky dream, however, was one step too far from her family; the homesickness pushed her to the point of giving up. But, Douglas remembered her mother telling her, “Life is not easy. You have to fight and refuse to quit.” Her mother recalls advising her daughter: “You have to fight for your dreams!”
That fight earned Douglas a first-place finish at the 2012 national trials and, with it, a guaranteed spot on the national team. The victory also marked a turning point in Douglas’ continuous battle with self-confidence. “It was 2012 when I started believing in myself,” she admits.
“She finally believed [that she could be number one] in March of 2012,” Hawkins confirms. “That’s what carried her through London. We saw the eye of the tiger in London and we were like: There it is!”
In London, as part of the U.S. squad dubbed the “Fierce Five,” Douglas won gold in the team competition and the individual all-around, becoming the first African-American to claim the all-around title.
“When we saw her name flash and knew she had won the gold in the all-around,” Hawkins recalls.” The first thing I thought of was, ‘OK, it was worth it.’ We had put everything on the line — emotional time, financial sacrifice — I thought I couldn’t understand how the sacrifices would have been a good thing, because they were crushing at times. That brutal and hard, gritty fight we had to go through was totally worth it.”
For Douglas and her family, the medals were a well-earned reward; the media blitz that made the young gymnast a household name, however, was an unexpected spinoff. “I didn’t know it was going to be this crazy. I thought I was going to go to London, compete, come home, eat dinner with the fam,” Douglas reveals.
Celebrity parties and countless TV appearances preceded two book deals, a feature-length film detailing her life story and over one million followers on Instagram alone. In between, there was also that cereal box and plenty of magazine covers that filled nine months before revealing to the then 17-year-old Douglas an unexpected truth: When it came to gymnastics, she wasn’t done.
Her mother puts it plainly: “It can be difficult to keep up with all the beautiful opportunities that come to her as a result of all her hard work and sacrifice and to train as a full time elite gymnast, but she had to make a decision.”
Soon after her revelation, Douglas announced her return to gymnastics, which was met with criticism (Wasn’t Douglas too old to resume a sport in which the average national team member’s age is, historically, 16?), doubt (Was she serious about her return or was it just a personal marketing gimmick?) and a touch of controversy (Why had she changed coaches and moved to California before doubling back to the Midwest, to a new gym and yet another new coach?)
Douglas’ well-curated professional website recounts the highlights of this journey via a slew of videos that bring a viewer up to date on her decisions and recommitment to her sport, and disclose the media savvy she picked up along the way. But for the past two years Douglas’ attention has been centered on the gym.
In a sport where she has already attained top honors and where fallibility or triumph is measured in mere centimeters, by a slip on the bar or the angle of a vault, accomplishing something new means beating her former self via serious ground rules and that above-mentioned training routine. The results of this rigorous regime have contoured new muscles onto Douglas’ still slender frame and led her to proclaim that tumbling is easier and gymnastics, overall, feels light and effortless. Similarly, her mentality has evolved. Self-doubt has transformed into a more motivating tic: impatience, as she tries to master new, more technical, higher-value skills that will complement her innately quick and fast talent.
“My mindset has gotten so much stronger,” Douglas explains, “[but] I get ahead of myself and my coaches tell me: ‘Don’t get anxious — patient, wait.’ I have to learn to be calm.”
In March of 2015, Douglas placed fourth at her first competition since her announced comeback, followed by silver in the all-around at the 2015 World Championships. The performances may have silenced skeptics but they failed to meet the gymnast’s own standards: “I’m a perfectionist,” Douglas confirms. “When something a little tiny bit goes off, I get really upset and kind of shut down a little and shut down the corrections. [My coaches] would tell you I need to work on my emotional game, I think.”
One of the ways in which she tackles this challenge is by meditating on scripture, which she declares, “really helps me in the gym and with my mental state, because gymnastics is all mental. It gives me motivation. It keeps me passionate and energized.”
Douglas’ physical-psychological preparation paid off in March of 2016 when she won all-around gold at a key international competition — another shot across the bow she accompanied with a Mona Lisa-like smile that reflects both her signature humility and her new maturity. “I have learned how to be more disciplined and more respectful and more efficient,” she says. Her training methods may be multifaceted but her goal is singular: She wants to win gold, again.
Just making the 2016 national team has defined Douglas as the first individual all-around champion to return at the Games since 1980 and characterizes her as the first of the four all-around American gold medalists to return to the competition. But her ambition is higher than simple participation. She wants to become the first woman since 1968 to repeat as all-around champion and the first American in history to accomplish the feat. These targets have the potential to be supplemented by another team victory, as the current U.S. women’s squad, which eviscerated all competition at the 2015 World Championships, is said to have no weaknesses.
Whatever the results, the competition is sure to inspire a new generation of young acrobats with gold in their eyes. For each of these girls, Douglas has straightforward advice: “I would tell her to work very hard! Things may get a little bumpy during the journey, but always keep fighting because you never want to have regrets. You never want to look back and say, ‘I desire that I would have stayed.’ When you look back you want to say, ‘I gave it my all. I gave it 100 percent. Now, I can walk forward.’”