Gabby Douglas needs to avoid letting others set her narrative for her

Sally Jenkins
Columnist August 7, 2012

Shirley Temple stopped believing in Santa Claus when she was 6. “Mother took me to see him in a department store and he asked for my autograph!” she said. Gymnast Gabby Douglas had a similar hard encounter with reality: No sooner did she assume her role as the adored juvenile of this Olympics than she began to age — fast. People wanted to change her hair, and tell her what lines to say. Then here came this other girl, Aly Raisman, winning even more medals.

According to the movies, America’s Sweetheart is supposed to be able to soften the most hardened characters and reform criminals into law-abiding citizens. Everybody imposed a pat story line on Douglas, the 16-year-old from Virginia Beach. There was the racial narrative, the rags-to-riches narrative. By the time television, sponsors, and print and social media got done reducing her, one of the most magnetic young athletes at the London Games was limp. Ever see a kid go from gleaming to grim more quickly?

Sally Jenkins is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. View Archive

Nothing can spoil the fact that four days ago Douglas was one of the most electrifyingly alive and unselfconscious performers at the Olympics, the first American woman in history to win both team and individual all-around gold medals.

“I made the history books,” she said proudly.

But once Douglas had to worry about her hair, the energy began to leak out of her. The result was a mentally exhausted and quavering performance with a bad fall on the balance beam Tuesday, her final event. She slipped off the beam during a flying split and landed hard on her backside on the narrow apparatus, then clung by a leg hanging upside down. The normally magnetic teenager dully awaited her score, her eyes slightly puffy with fatigue and her mouth uncharacteristically downturned. The judges awarded her a 13.63. Meantime, a fresher and more energetic Raisman collected bronze and then gold in the floor exercise.

“I was kinda tired,” Douglas said afterward. “I put my all into it, but obviously it wasn’t my day to shine.”

Clearly, someone should have shut her down and taken away her electronics. It took just four days to suck all the vibrancy out of Douglas. First, she awoke after the achievement of a lifetime to a ludicrous, racially loaded conversation about the neatness of her coif, started by a bunch of Twitter critics. To be frank, anyone who eyed Douglas’s ponytail was looking for a reason to criticize. Her performances were so entrancing that you could only notice her hair if you dragged your eye there with a malicious purpose. So instead of reveling in her victory, Douglas found herself addressing her coif.

“Yeaahhhhhh, okay, um, I don’t know where this is coming from. What’s wrong with my hair?” she said. “I simply gel it back and put it in a bun. I’m like, ‘You got to be kidding me.’ ”

She added: “I just want to say we’re all beautiful inside and out. We’re all champions and winners, and I just say it’s kind of a stupid and a crazy thought to be all about my hair.”

Well done, kid. But the hair discussion was just the beginning. Race in America is a story line that Douglas is part of — but it’s not her whole story. The pat story line of black gymnast breaks the color mold was not only old and too neat, it was especially untruthful. “The last seven [American] gymnastics teams had women of color on them,” pointed out Dominque Dawes, the 1996 gold medalist.

Douglas is black, her coach is Chinese. She’s living with a white family in Iowa, and her captain on the USA gymnastics team is Jewish and danced to a gold medal in the floor exercise to Hava Nagila.

Douglas genuinely doesn’t see color — it’s not her first thought. Yet she was drilled incessantly with questions about being a woman of color in gymnastics. How can she get more African American children to pay attention to gymnastics, she was asked? “I can’t control that,” she said tonelessly.

Perhaps her most baffled moment came when she was asked what she saw when she walked into a gymnastics class for the first time. She replied evenly that she saw a lot of talented athletes. That answer wasn’t good enough. Did she ever think because she was African American and didn’t see many other black gymnasts that she couldn’t succeed at it?

“You know I didn’t,” she answered. “Because everyone told me I had such a beautiful talent. I was a fast learner, quick learner. I picked up stuff very good. I don’t know, I was just a fast learner.”

Again, well done.

We moved from there to a revelation that her mother, Natalie Hawkins, was forced to file for bankruptcy this year, and that she is somewhat estranged from her father, an Air Force staff sergeant who served in the Middle East, over child support issues. Douglas read stories projecting her earning ability, and gaped at false Twitter reports that she had signed multimillion-dollar deals.

“I just googled my name, and they’re like, ‘Gabby just signed a $90 million contract, and I’m like, what? I’m like, I need to stop. When money gets involved, man . . . ”

It was the consensus of experienced observers that the limelight had gotten to Douglas. National team director Martha Karolyi believed the protégé got overwhelmed by “too much, too quickly,” and Dawes shared the opinion. “Winning is draining,” Dawes said, and all of the side discussions “didn’t help. All of the talk outside the arena can really tax an athlete.” It obviously affected her: Douglas complained of fatigue and trouble sleeping.

Douglas’s life isn’t likely to get any quieter. She is scheduled to appear on David Letterman’s show with her teammates, and then participate in a lengthy exhibition tour. “There’s gonna be parades,” Douglas said. “It’s gonna be insane, but I’m ready for it.”

But Douglas also confessed that she was looking forward to going home. She hasn’t been back to Virginia Beach in two years, since she moved to West Des Moines, Iowa, to train with world class coach Liang Chow when she was 14. Her plan was to play with her dogs, shop for her first car, and lie by the seaside. The hope here is that she shuts out the noise, and refinds herself.

“The best advice I can give is to be herself, be genuine, and not try to be what other people think America wants or will gravitate to,” Dawes said. “Everybody wants to know what America will fall in love with. America will fall in love with a kid who is genuine. The thing I love about Gabby is that she’s been herself every step of the way so far. And I hope it stays that way, and that the people around her help her do that.”

For previous Sally Jenkins columns, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.

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