GARY, Ind. – Double Olympic Gold medalist Gabrielle Douglas has quickly gone from a regular teenager to a member of the Olympic elite and an international superstar. Just two months after Douglas became the first American gymnast to win gold in the individual and team all-around gymnastics competitions at the same Olympic Games, she’s posted appearances with Oprah Winfrey, Jay Leno, America’s Got Talent, the Video Music Awards, the Democratic National Convention and a national campaign with Kellogg’s Corn Flakes cereal.
Although Douglas has accomplished things many adults have never done, the 16-year-old is still very much a kid. She enjoys shopping, hanging out at the mall and going to the movies, like any teenager her age. But with such great exposure to the world, Douglas’ feat becoming the first African-American gymnast in Olympic history to become the all-around gymnastics champion immediately catapulted her into the spotlight, and she is under much scrutiny.
On a trip back to her mother’s hometown, Gary, Ind., she told theGrio.com about her triumph and how she kept focused after comments on Twitter sparked a bizarre controversy about her hair and TMZ reported Douglas’ mother, Natalie Hawkins, filed for bankruptcy months before the London Games.
Douglas’ most impactful moment at the 2012 Olympics, she says, was being able to “inspire young girls and everyone. The whole quote about the Olympic Games was ‘Inspire Generations,’ so I’m just glad I got to do that and just impact everyone’s lives and touch their hearts.”
Asked how she was able to overcome the controversies that surged during the Games, Douglas didn’t overthink it. “I just had a motivation in me,” illustrating the positive attitude her mother instilled in her. “I think that when you have a dream, you won’t let anyone stop you. So you just want to love what you do and have fun, because it’s your passion, so you just want to go out there, have fun and love it,” Douglas said.
“I instilled in my children to dream and to hope, and when I come back to my city, that’s something that’s always near and dear to my heart, because I know that there are a lot of people here that are struggling, and I know the economy isn’t easy for anyone,” Hawkins said. “But if I can help to put a smile on anyone’s face, then I know at the end of the day that that’s what it’s all about. It’s about how we can impact others’ lives.”
On Monday, Douglas’ tour of Gary started at a mother-daughter luncheon at Indiana University, which was the annual kickoff of the Barden Gary Foundation scholarship program. Later she was honored at a dinner attended by about 300 people, including elected officials from Indiana and Illinois. In addition to receiving several honors, Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson gave Douglas a key to the city. She also made an appearance on a Gary late night talk show, “Seven on Ridge.” Freeman-Wilson officially sanctioned Oct. 15th as “Gabrielle Douglas Day” in Gary.
Douglas remembered how her three older siblings sacrificed so that she could follow her dream. “They wouldn’t let me quit. Even when I wanted to,” she said.
“Her siblings were her biggest cheerleaders,” Hawkins said. “They gave up things for her [to succeed].”
Douglas began training at 6 years old. At 12 years old, she left her family in Virginia and headed to Des Moines, Iowa to train with coach Liang Chow at Chow’s Gymnastics, a difficult decision for her and her family. “I realized that I had to get over it, because it was my decision,” Douglas said. “I knew that if I wanted to accomplish this goal, then there had to be sacrifices.”
What’s next for Gabby Douglas?
What else could you accomplish after you’ve set a world record? Douglas will publish an inspirational memoir called Grace, Gold and Glory, My Leap of Faith, in December, sharing her path to gold. After she completes the 40-city Kellogg’s Tour of Gymnastics Champions, Douglas will begin training for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio De Janeiro
In addition to having a record-breaking gymnastics career, Douglas has her heart set on public speaking and entering the arts. “After 2016 I want to be a spokesperson. I also want to be an actress,” she said. The world will see Douglas’ first try at acting in an upcoming episode of the CW drama, The Vampire Diaries, one of her favorite shows.
When Douglas won gold, so did the entire family. “I was so proud to be an American. She made me proud to wear the red, white and blue on my back,” said Hawkins.
Overly humbled by her experience, Douglas offers sound advice to kids — and adults — who want to be successful. “Always stick to your sport,” Douglas said.
“That’s important, because you want to show the world how great you can be.”
Renita Young is a Chicago-based multimedia journalist. Follow her on Twitter @RenitaDYoung.