17 Dec 2012
- Written by The Root
It's easy to see how Gabrielle Douglas, the charming teen gymnast and first African American to win the individual all-around Olympic gold, can be an inspiration for generations of young black girls and boys. As a 16-year-old African-American girl from Iowa, she gave performances at the London 2012 Games that showed remarkable spirit and determination.
But it wasn't necessarily an easy road to glory. In her charming new autobiography, "Grace, Gold & Glory: My Leap of Faith" – written with O, the Oprah Magazine founding editor Michelle Burford – Gabby reveals sacrifices her family made to get her ready for the Olympics. For example, some of her siblings had to give up a few hobbies to direct money toward her gymnastics training.
Those who have followed Gabby's ascent may know many details of her journey already. However, she also provides longer explanations of the pain of her father's physical and emotional distance, the time she endured racially tinged bullying when another gymnast referred to her as a slave, and the stream of insults on Twitter about her hair that she refused to let distract her from getting the gold.
To handle her detractors, Gabby admits to turning to the grace of God. She said she believes that this spiritual connection guides her in the sport she has loved since age 3, when her sister taught her to do a cartwheel. When we caught up with Gabby via phone recently, she told The Root about how she overcame racism, what Dominique Dawes means to her and how she regards her role as a black gymnast.
The Root: There's a painful scene in the book when you talk about your feelings of isolation and one of the gymnasts referred to you as a slave. How did you overcome painful feelings and/or discrimination in the sport? Were you surprised by it?
Gabrielle Douglas: I was definitely shocked. No one likes to be made fun of or joked about. I remember crying and I didn't say anything, and I don't recommend that. You should always tell an adult. I overcame that by relying on the Bible to encourage me and to lift me up. I knew I had a dream to follow, and I wasn't going to let anything or anyone stop me from achieving my goals.
TR: It must have been hard to live in Iowa, where the black population is pretty small. You said you joked around about it – but how did you cope with that?
GD: I'm always in the gym 24-7, so it wasn't that much of a shock. There aren't that many African Americans in the sport of gymnastics. I just love to turn the negative into something positive.
TR: You mention that Martin Luther King Jr. is one of your favorite historical figures, and not just because of his race. Why?
GD: Don't get me wrong; I love a lot of historical figures, but Martin Luther King Jr. was one of my favorites. I loved what he stood up for and believed. I'm living his dream, being the first African American to win the individual all-around gold in gymnastics. I was living with a white host family that opened their home and treated me as one of their own.
TR: What was it like to be congratulated by gymnast Dominique Dawes and the Obamas?
GD: It was an amazing feeling because Dominique Dawes was one of my role models and I love her, and I'm so glad I got to meet her and especially the president and the first lady. Just to be in their presence was spectacular.
TR: You told the New York Times before you won your medals that no one thought you would win because you were black and you were the underdog. Do you feel that your win has helped erase the perception that black gymnasts or other athletes are unlikely to excel in sports where there aren't that many of us?
GD: I'm just so honored to become the first African American to win the all-around medal. A lot of people doubted me, but that was also my encouragement, not only to prove them wrong but also to prove myself right. I'm so happy to bring a new face to the sport of gymnastics.
Photo: Gabby Douglas.(Scott Wynn/Zondervan)
(Joshunda Sanders is an Austin, Texas-based writer. Follow her on Twitter.)