(feature Photo by Allen Fraser)
Dear Gabby Douglas,
Thank you for specifically being the highlight of the my Olympic experience. This is not to discredit Michael Phelps (the most decorated Olympian of all time), Katie Ledecky (the female Phelps), Simone Biles (arguably the greatest gymnast ever since…you), Aly Raisman (the team captain), USA basketball, USA track and field and others. I mean, I could go on and on about all of the fantastic athletes and stellar moments of these 2016 Olympic games, but I want to shine my proverbial flashlight on why YOU made this Olympics special to me.
Buried in the complete and utter dominance of the “Final Five” women’s gymnastics team from the good ol US of A, and the coronation of the new greatest gymnast (irregardless of gender) Simone Biles, stood one of the most humblest and mature athletes I think I’ve ever seen (yes, you Gabby). Allow me to regurgitate your 2012 Olympic resume for the general public who must have forgotten. Eh em…In London 2012, a younger, shorter Gabrielle Douglas “finally” rose to global recognition when she became the first African American woman in Olympic history to become the individual all-around champion, AAAAND the first American gymnast to win gold in both the individual all-around and team competitions AT. THE. SAME. OLYMPICS. She also became the only American all-around champion to win MULTIPLE gold medals in a single Olympic Games, AAAAND 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.
Let me take a breather while people read and re-read what I just wrote. *long pause*
See, I had to say “‘finally’ rose to global recognition” because most of us aren’t privy to watching gymnastics as often as we watch basketball, football, baseball, et cetera. The casual “every 4-year” fans didn’t see you coming in 2012, but were more than proud to see you rise to gymnastic royalty. All eyes were on Jordyn Weiber and Aly Raisman (team captain). You, Weiber and Raisman all did well in qualifying for the all-around (qualifying 2nd, 3rd and 4th overall), but due to the rule that only 2 from each team could qualify for medals, Weiber (the reigning champ in this event) was the odd one out. She was seen with tears in her eyes, and justifiably so. All eyes were still on Raisman, but you rose as the victor and made history (see 2012 Olympic resume above…again). Next thing we knew, you and Phelps were the talk of the whole Olympics. Endorsement deals galore. A Lifetime biopic. Oprah. Everything seemed great for you, BUT…that’s where I saw the seed of your character. It was right there, during your coronation as the new Queen of the Gym with multiple gold medals, that is where I saw you rise. Not rise above the balance beam. Not rise above the scoring charts. But rise above the pettiness. Here you were, breaking records and taking names, and back home, you had basic…”folks” (for lack of a better word) and even commentators talk about your hair. *side eye* You earned your popularity and gold medals via hard work and dedication, but you didn’t ask for the celebrity status, and you certainly didn’t ask for their opinion on your hair. Yet, you remained poised and displayed grace. Thank you #1.
Now, for the main reason for this letter. (Yes, I know it’s long. Please bear with me.)
A year after you rose to the top, a young Simone Biles made her debut as a senior gymnast. The “every 4-year” fans didn’t see her coming, just like they didn’t see you coming in 2012. For some crazy reason, they just expected you to not only qualify for the 2016 Olympics with ease, but be the team captain, be superwoman and have a perm all at once. *another side eye*
I wish people could really comprehend how hard it is to train to do what you make seem easy. I wish more coverage were on gymnastics. You guys have events and competitions all the time, not just at the Olympics every 4 years. It is with that lack of knowledge and exposure that people were baffled that Simone Biles was “suddenly” crowned the greatest gymnast of all time coming into Rio 2016. So coming in to these Olympic games, you took a back seat to Simone…gracefully. Then, the Jordyn Weiber effect happened to you. You, the reigning champ in the all-around, placed 3rd, not only on the team, but also overall. Unfortunately, that pesky rule of only the top 2 from each team gets to go on, you were the odd one out. BUT…instead of tears, or a mean/jealous face, you took it in stride. Yes, I could tell that a lot was on your mind. Yes, I could tell a lot of inner emotions were forming, but you kept it in for the greater good of the team. Yes, you were the darling in 2012, but now Simone is the darling. You took that in stride as well. Thank you #2.
Behind the scenes and off-the-mat, you were dealing with other issues, such as your estranged father trying to come back into your life ONLY to try to get money from you. Also in 2010, two years before the world embraced you, you almost quit because your former gym staff strongly suggested that you should get a nose job. All of this off-the-mat drama mixed with time away from your family to train would lead you to nights where you would just call home to cry. You also had former teammates call you racist remarks such as “slave“. The hell you endured. The strength you showed…wow. Thank you #3. (You can read the rest of her off-the-mat drama here)
Let me make this last point, which is also my most personal point. As an African-American, it gave me great joy to see someone from my race rise to the top with poise and grace. Prior to you, it was Dominique Dawes. Dominique won her first gold when you were just 1 year old. That’s how long it’s been for our culture to see another black gymnast break records and barriers. When you came on the scene, you shattered Dominique’s accomplishments and everybody’s expectations. You weren’t just the Olympic darling and America’s darling, you were our darling. I can admit, sometimes within our culture, we have the crabs-in-the-barrel mentality. We don’t want someone to take our place or be better than us most times. You could’ve easily chose not endorse and support Simone. You could’ve given her side-eyes and hated from afar. It wouldn’t have been right, per se, but I would’ve understood. But, you didn’t do any of that, and if you did, you kept it to yourself and allowed your true character to eradicate the potential hate.
No, you didn’t get to complete and defend your all-around crown. No, you didn’t get to compete in as many events as you did in London. No, you didn’t get as much interview air-time as you did in 2012. People may have forgotten the road you paved for Simone. People still may have something to say about your hair. In fact, I just saw an article today where they were nitpicking about you not putting your hand to your heart during the National anthem, but I understand your true character. I want you to know that you are still our darling. I wish they gave medals for being humble and graceful. If so, you would definitely be a gold medalist in that as well.
Thank you Gabby for not only your athletic ability, but your gold medal-worthy character.
A Man Called Jason