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.