Gabby Douglas: Grace under Pressure
Gabrielle “Gabby” Douglas took home a gold medal in 2012 as a member of the “Fierce Five” U.S. gymnastics team at the Olympic Games. But she wasn’t born fierce. Though she may have always known how to stand tall on the balance beam, Gabby had to learn how best to stand up for herself when those around her tried to knock her down
The road to Olympic victory is full of obstacles. To become the first African American gymnast to win an individual all-around gold medal in the international competition, Gabby Douglas had to overcome many challenges—including bullying by some of her own
teammates and teachers.
For Gabby (called “Brie” by her family), gymnastics was always easy. Even as a baby, she was already squeezing her tiny hands around the bars of her crib, just as she would one day do with the uneven bars.
At an age when most kids were learning to walk, Gabby was climbing and jumping around. As a toddler, she liked to clamber onto the top of a closet door and then leap off like Supergirl. Couches and chairs were springboards for her airborne adventures.
Sometimes Gabby’s daredevil antics attracted unwanted attention. One day, as she was careening through the playground in a toy car, a bully approached and pushed her out of the driver’s seat. Luckily for Gabby, her older brother Johnathan was there to help.
It would not be the last time Gabby would have to deal with bullies.
Gabby’s childhood became consumed with rolling and tumbling. When she was three, her older sister Arielle taught her how to do a cartwheel. By the very next day, Gabby had moved on to handstands, flips, and other tricky maneuvers. Within a week, she was doing one-handed cartwheels.
Amazed by her sister’s progress, Arielle told their mom, Natalie Hawkins, that Gabby should start gymnastics lessons. But Natalie worried that her daughter would hurt herself, and she refused.
Over the next few years, the girls worked hard to wear down their mother’s resistance. And although Natalie remained afraid that Gabby might injure herself doing gymnastics, she knew that lessons would help her daughter learn to do the movements properly. Without
the supervision of a trained adult, who knew what she would jump off next?
So when Gabby was six, Natalie signed her up at a local gym that offered weekend gymnastics classes. Soon Gabby was receiving formal instruction for about six hours a week.
After two years, Gabby was ready to move on to the next level of training. Her mother found another gym that provided more rigorous instruction. The goal there was to train young gymnasts to compete and win tournaments at the highest level, including the Olympics.
At first, Gabby thrived at her new gym. She made friends and learned techniques and strategies from her coaches. But as she improved at gymnastics, Gabby noticed that some of the students began treating her differently. Sometimes she’d see the girls whispering to one another when she entered the locker room. As soon as they saw Gabby, they’d stop talking.
Then, one day, when it was time to clean the chalk off the uneven bars after class, one of Gabby’s teammates greeted her with a cruel taunt. “Why doesn’t Gabby do it?” the girl asked. “She’s our slave.” Gabby was terribly hurt by the remark, but she didn’t confront the girl or say anything to her instructors. It wasn’t until years later that she found the courage to talk
about the incident, though she never forgot about it during that time.
Another time, one of Gabby’s coaches made fun of her appearance. “She needs a nose job,” he joked in front of the other girls. Once again, Gabby gritted her teeth and continued with practice. But when she got home that night—and on many other nights—she cried alone
in her room.
Gabby knew she’d been bullied, and she suspected it was because she was the only African American girl in the class. But she was afraid that if she spoke up, she’d be isolated even more—maybe even thrown out of the gymnastics program altogether. So she held her tongue
and kept the hurtful comments to herself. She didn’t even tell her mother.
Over time, the bullying took a toll on Gabby’s performance. She finished in tenth place at her first junior gymnastics competition. At another event, she placed sixteenth and failed to qualify for the U.S. national team. In practices, she butted heads with her coaches. Convinced that she needed to test herself, she begged them to let her try out increasingly difficult routines. But where Gabby sought excellence, her coaches seemed satisfied with mediocrity. One time, after Gabby finished in fourth place at a tournament, her coach was amazed.
“I thought you might be ninth or tenth,” he said, “but never fourth!”
Gabby had finally reached her breaking point. How could she have faith in her abilities if her own coach thought so little of her? She knew that it was time to stand up for herself, put an end to the bullying, and find a coach who believed in her.
Luckily for Gabby, she found just such a mentor. Liang Chow had coached U.S. gymnast Shawn Johnson to a gold medal at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, China. He ran his own gymnastics academy in West Des Moines, Iowa.
In the summer of 2010, Coach Chow traveled to Gabby’s hometown of Virginia Beach to teach a clinic and look for new talent. On his first day in town, Gabby worked up the nerve to introduce herself and show off some of her skills.
Coach Chow was impressed. He was also friendly and patient, taking the time to show Gabby new moves and expressing confidence in her abilities.
Gabby left the clinic determined to break from her current gym. Now all she had to do was convince her mother to let her go.
“If I’m going to make it to the Olympics, I need better coaching,” Gabby told her mom. Natalie Hawkins understood—especially after Gabby revealed details about the bullying she had endured. But the next thing Gabby said threw her for a loop: “I want to train with Liang Chow in Iowa…”
Absolutely not, Gabby’s mom replied. “There’s no way I’m sending my baby across the country.”
But Gabby knew she had to take a stand for what she believed in—she had only two short years before the next Olympic Games! Faced with her mother’s refusal, all she could feel was frustration and anger. “If I don’t change coaches, I’m quitting gymnastics!” she declared,
and then she stormed out of the room.
When her anger cooled, Gabby realized that threatening to quit unless she got her way was not a smart idea. Teamwork was the way to go. Once again, she enlisted her sisters Arielle and Joyelle to help convince their mother to change her mind. Finally, after much begging and pleading, they wore her down. Natalie realized that when her youngest daughter set her heart on something, she wouldn’t let go. She agreed to let Gabby leave home to pursue her Olympic dream.
In October of 2010, Gabby packed her bags and made the thousand-mile trip from Virginia Beach to West Des Moines. She moved in with a host family and began training with Coach Chow six hours a day, six days a week. Gabby missed her family. There were days during the long, frigid winter when she thought about giving up and returning home to sunny Virginia Beach.
But with the help of her new coach, Gabby consistently improved on each apparatus. She led the U.S. team to a gold medal at the 2011 World Championships in Tokyo and then collected gold, silver, and bronze medals at the U.S. National Championships in 2012.
Later that year, the sixteen-year-old phenomenon—now known affectionately as the “Flying Squirrel”—led the American gymnasts to victory in the team competition at the Olympics. After all the bullying she’d experienced, and all the hard work she’d put in practicing, Gabby had finally found a team with whom she could shine. She was now one of the fabulous “Fierce Five.”
Copyright © 2015 by David Stabler; illustrated by Doogie Horner. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.