“I was like, ‘What? This can’t be a thing,’ ” Douglas recalled in a phone interview Wednesday.
Things got even worse for Douglas later in the Olympic Games when online bullies decried her for what they saw as a lack of support for her teammates Aly Raisman and Simone Biles, who were competing in the individual all-around competition. Douglas, who narrowly missed out on a spot to compete in the event, watched from the stands but some found her expressions too sour for the occasion. The trolls worked fast, labeling her #CrabbyGabby on Twitter and declaring she was either too arrogant or too jealous to properly support her teammates. It was enough to draw tears from the 20-year-old, who later apologized for how those people interpreted her behavior.
“I support [my teammates],” she told reporters in August, “and I’m sorry that I wasn’t showing it.”
Douglas is done apologizing now, however. As the three-time Olympic gold medalist heads into 2017, she’s dried her tears and holding her head up high, declaring that she’s “overcome it.”
Online harassment “could be about anybody,” she said. This is one reason she recently teamed up with Hack Harassment, a group that seeks to reduce online bullying. Douglas will be touring high schools and college campuses for the organization next year.
To this day, the two-time Olympian maintains she has “no idea” why she became such a lightning rod for criticism. In 2012, when Douglas was just 16, online bullies got on her about her hair, which they thought looked unkempt. Douglas doesn’t chalk up the criticism to her gender or her race, however. Instead she simply blames “the mean few that feel like they need to comment on everything.”
According to the Pew Research Center, approximately 70 percent of people aged 18 to 24 have been bullied online. While Douglas bore the brunt during this year’s Olympics, some of her Final Five teammates, including Biles, 19, Raisman, 22, and Madison Kocian, 19, also found themselves on the receiving end of online hate when they posted a picture to Instagram of themselves in bikinis on a Rio beach after the Games.
It wasn’t their expressions, hair or patriotism that some took issue with, but their muscular physiques.
“Everybody’s on social media in my generation and everybody’s using it,” Douglas said. “I think that’s why a lot of teens, more than adults, are dealing with these problems.”
Douglas, who said she stayed offline before the Olympics to concentrate on her training, said she wasn’t ready to deal with the onslaught of criticism she received when she finally logged back on.
“I Googled myself after the team event, after we won the gold,” she said about how she found out she’d become a target of online bullies once again. “I probably shouldn’t have done that.”
She said when she first saw what people were saying, she thought it “was gonna blow away” quickly. It’s when it didn’t, however, that it really began to affect her.
“When they talk about my hair or me not putting my hand up on my heart or me being very salty in the stands, they’re really criticizing me, and it doesn’t really feel good,” Douglas tearfully told reporters in Rio in August. “It was a little bit hurtful.”
Douglas can still recall the hurt she felt, although it no longer elicits tears.
“We already feel a lot of pressure being out on the competition floor . . . and when someone has to deal with that, you know, it’s a lot,” she said. “It was a lot for me.”
She continued: “I thought people were taking such small things and making them a bigger deal than they were and I had accomplished something so great. You know, going back to the Olympics, winning another team medal, qualifying for the bar finals. I was like, wait, why can’t they focus on the good instead of the negative?”
Douglas doesn’t claim to know the answers, but she knows it’s not because of anything she did or didn’t do, and she’s hoping to instill that sense of self worth into young people she plans to meet while touring schools for Hack Harassment.
“I feel like when you really stand up for yourself and you really tell people, ‘Hey, you know, that’s not right’ . . . they back off,” she said. “You gotta face the situation without fear.”