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The Gold medal winning gymnast will inspire a generation of African Americans in the way that Venus & Serena Williams and Tiger Woods did.
The world’s greatest athletes converge every four years for the Olympic games, and there is always one athlete who stands above all the rest as the marquee performer. Well in gymnast Gabby Douglas’ case, she flies above world’s best.
Just like Mary Lou Retton in 1984, Carl Lewis in 1984 & 88, the Dream Team in 1992, Michael Johnson in 1996, Marion Jones in 2000, Mia Hamm in 2004 and Michael Phelps in 2008, Gabby has taken a starring role as the face of the games.
Douglas has captured this nation’s hearts by propelling herself higher on the uneven bars, being more precise in the floor exercises, and smiling bigger than any other Olympian at the games in London as she won gold medals in team and individual all-around competitions.
Douglas has followed in the footsteps of gymnast Dominique Dawes, who is known as the first African American woman to win an individual Olympic medal in gymnastics, and the first black person of any nationality or gender to win a gold medal. In 1992, she won a bronze medal in the team all-around competition in Barcelona. In 1996 she won a gold medal in the team all-around competition, and a bronze in the individual floor competition. She also won a bronze medal at the 2000 Sydney Olympics in the team all-around competition.
In London, Douglas won a gold medal in the team all-around competition, and then she became not only the first African American woman, but woman of any color, to win the individual all-around competition, and she is the first American woman, regardless of color, to win gold in both the team and individual all-around competitions.
Not only has she caught the world’s attention, she is inspiring a generation of young African American boys and girls who are just starting out in a sport where blacks rarely succeed.
Locally, at the Lula Washington Dance Theatre, where gymnastics is taught to young African American children, everybody was bouncing off the walls after watching Douglas make history.
“Everyone came into the studio the next day just raving and so excited and so proud,” said Tamica Washington-Miller, Associate Director. “Just happy for Gabby Douglas for all of the medals that she won. The thing that was really exciting for me as a dance teacher, because we incorporate gymnastics here and we give a lot of girls their first introduction to gymnastics, was making the connection that this girl practiced everyday for hours and hours and hours, just to do it one time at the Olympics in order to win. More than anything that’s the message that we’ve been reminding the students of. That they can do it as well. We could see their eyes lighting up, even the little boys. They’ve all been wanting Gabby to win, and they had the connection that somebody that looks like you made it all the way to the world stage.”
The phenomenon of Douglas will have a similar impact in gymnastics as the emergence of Venus and Serena Williams did in tennis, and Tiger Woods in golf. Douglas looks like us, she has a personality like us, and if she can make it, so can other young African American gymnast.
But there are issues that Douglas was able to overcome because she had people, namely her mother Natalie Hawkins, who believed in her talents. The lack of success of African American gymnast is not an issue of talent, but an issue of raising the funds to excel in the sport.
“Gymnastics is an expensive sport to learn and study,” Washington-Miller said. “In the past, and even right now, the biggest challenge for folks of African American decent is that the money is not always accessible on a consistent and on going basis to be able to train on the level that they would need to at an early age in order to establish a foundation to continue later.”
It was recently reported that Douglas’ mother had to file for bankruptcy, most likely due to paying for her daughter’s training and living expenses. Hawkins sent her daughter from Virginia to Iowa to get the best training possible.
“The fact that she had to go all the way to bankruptcy is a testament to her diligence to her child’s development and growth,” Washington-Miller said. “As a gymnast, people saw the potential in Gabby early on, and her mom, thank God, kept pushing no matter what. But a lot of us don’t have that within us. When you get to that place when you file for bankruptcy, a lot of people would say, ‘you know what, I can’t do it.’ A lot of other people may have stopped there. But her mom made the commitment, made the sacrifices, and made it happen. And thank God, now we have Gabby Douglas on the world stage as the first African American woman to win a gold medal in gymnastics.”
Hawkins’ investment in her daughter is going to pay off big time. As the star of the Olympics, Douglas will earn millions of dollars in endorsement deals.
Douglas also had support from her father, which became a long distance relationship after he and Hawkins separated.
Air National Guard Staff Sgt. Timothy Douglas is stationed in Afghanistan, but he was able to fly to San Jose to for the US Olympic trials to watch his daughter earn a spot on the Olympic team. The two have kept in contact through Skype.
At only 16 years old, Douglas has several years left in her career, and if she really follows in the footsteps of Dawes, she will be able to make people of color all around the world proud as she competes in the next couple of Olympic games.