It’s pretty unusual for an Olympic athlete to write a memoir so soon after winning gold, yet on December 4th, Gabby Douglas released hers. It might seem a little strange, but then again, so might her story. Only 16-years-old, Gabby made history on August 2nd when she became the first woman of color to win the coveted All-Around gold from any country, not just the United States. It’s a huge breakthrough for a sport thought to be pretty xenophobic due in large part to its white majority, but Gabby is successfully breaking down both racial and economic boundaries — and inspiring young girls all over the world.
Her story is even more inspiring when you learn how close she came to being defeated by circumstance.
The novel — Grace, Gold, and Glory: My Leap of Faith — outlines Gabby’s difficult journey towards making the Olympic team. Not necessarily her struggles to overcome her personal demons in such a mentally draining sport, although they were certainly there, but her economic struggles. Gabby’s story points out a major flaw in the sport of gymnastics: in order to make it far, you need to have a lot of money.
Gabby’s family is no stranger to financial struggles, which started long before she began dreaming of a gold medal. The youngest of four children born with a rare blood disease, Gabby’s family was homeless the first several months of her life, forcing the family to live in a van for a period of time. Even when her parents were still married, Gabby’s father never contributed much financially, making Gabby’s mother virtually the only breadwinner in the family. For a while they bounced from place to place before Gabby’s mother could finally afford a small, three bedroom townhouse for Gabby and her siblings.
Gabby’s mother never planned to place her in gymnastics. The spark first began when Gabby’s oldest sister, Arielle, came home from gymnastics practice and taught a then-three-year-old Gabby how to do a cartwheel. Within a few days, Gabby had taught herself to do it with one hand. Arielle recognized the strength and flexibility in Gabby right away and began begging her mother to place the youngest child in gymnastics classes. But her mom didn’t want to see her baby get hurt, plus classes are expensive. It took several years of negotiations before she finally agreed, in 2002. Within no time, Gabby was training to compete in Level 4, the first level of competition in the USA Gymnastics program. She was also place in the TOPS program (the Talent Opportunity Program, which puts young gymnasts on the radar of National coaches in USA Gymnastics.) The highest qualifiers in the TOPS program get invited to a National Training camp that is overseen by the National coaches, including Martha Karolyi, the National Team coordinator– and the woman to impress if you want to make it onto the National team.
But gymnastics is expensive, and the further a gymnast climbs up the ladder, the more expensive it gets. There are the classes itself; depending on the program and level of competition, practices can range from 9 hours a week to roughly 40. Additionally, leotards can range from $50 for everyday leotards to around $200 for competitions, with new competition leotards needed every year, including matching team warm-ups. By the time a gymnast makes it past compulsories and can have her own routines, you need to pay for music and a choreographer, which also needs to be changed every couple of years. (Gabby notes once paying $600 to have a floor routine choreographed.) To help protect their hands from painful blood blisters, gymnasts need to buy a pair of grips for bars, usually costing around $50, although these need to be replaced regularly as they become worn down. Then there are meet fees and travel expenses to get to those meets, as many gymnastics competitions are not local. (The higher level a gymnast gets, the further away from home a meet may be. Even within the United States, air travel is usually necessary as a gymnast begins competing on the national level.) In addition, many gymnasts on the Elite track, as Gabby was, have two session practices (morning and afternoon), making formal school impossible. These gymnasts are usually home schooled; often times parents will hire a tutor for their child to help them stay on top of their studies.
It can be a financial strain on the average, middle class family, and it’s near impossible for a family struggling just to put food on the table and pay the bills every month.
For Gabby, her Olympic journey was truly a team effort on the family’s part. By the time all the bills were paid, there was hardly any money left over to spare. Her mom needed to work double shifts just to pay the bills, and even went on food stamps for a period of time. Her siblings all graciously quit their own extracurricular activities for Gabby’s dream, as it was impossible to all the children to continue while also paying for Gabby’s training.
Image courtesy of Gabby Douglas’ official facebook
Gabby is certainly not the first gymnast whose family has spent all their money on their child’s dream, and she will not be the last. Hundreds of young gymnasts dreaming of the Olympics will never make it that far. Many of those girls dominate the collegiate gymnastics scene, relying on an athletic scholarship to pay for their college education.
The most controversial, and also the most famous part of Gabby’s journey is the story of her transition from training at Excalibur Gymnastics to be coached by the infamous Liang Chow, a former Chinese gymnast who coached 2008 Olympian Shawn Johnson. The only problem? Chow’s gym is located in West Des Moines, Iowa, thousands of miles from her home in Virginia Beach.
It’s not uncommon in the world of Elite gymnastics for a gymnast to pick up and move across the country as they seek better coaching. Sometimes a young athlete is lucky enough to live within a reasonable driving distance of a gym with a decent program. Shawn Johnson was lucky enough to walk into Chows when she was young and never had to deal with the agony of trying to find somewhere else to train. Other athletes, such as 2008 All Around gold medalist Nastia Liukin, are trained by their parents. But not every gymnast is lucky enough to have former Olympians as parents, or have a gym with a coach suitable for that athlete’s needs nearby.
At that point, a critical decision must be made: does the gymnast stay at the local gym and hope for the best, or does that athlete put everything on the line and move to another state entirely? And all of this must be decided while the athlete is only a teenager.
Douglas discusses how she had been feeling bullied at Excalibur for a while, but didn’t want to bring it up with her mother. She recounts one story in which a fellow teammate suggests that Gabby should clean off the bars because “she’s our slave.” In another story, a coach tells Gabby directly that she should get a nose job. Although Excalibur has denied these accusations, stating instead that Douglas left an outstanding balance when she moved to Chows, it’s pretty clear that Gaby felt discriminated against at Excalibur. Since winning gold and opening up about her story, talk started to spread around the gymnastics fan community that Gabby was exaggerating the extent of the bullying, due in large part to Excalibur’s consistent denial. But really, did anyone expect them to openly admit to making racist comments towards the All Around gold medalist when she was twelve? Either way, Gabby was growing up in a sport filled with successful athletes who were either white or rich: neither of which she was. That alone is enough for a young athlete to feel alienated. In her book, one thing is abundantly clear: Douglas felt excluded for both racial and financial reasons. And yet she continued to train and to be more talented than anyone around her– which couldn’t have helped her social situation or her bullying problems.
When Gabby watched Johnson interact with Chow on TV during the 2008 Beijing Olympics, she became obsessed with the idea of Chow coaching her. Douglas met Chow for the first time when he visited her gym for a training clinic, teaching her a very difficult vault that she’d never attempted before in just a few minutes. “That’s when it clicked in my head: if he could teach me a two-and-a-half in one day, what other big skills could he teach me?”
“After the coach left the room, I plopped down on my bed and turned to my mother. ‘You see, if my coach doesn’t have faith in me,’ I said, ‘how can I have faith in myself?’” Gabby doesn’t really make it clear whether or not she thought race was a factor in her coach’s lack of faith in her abilities. But that factor can’t be denied.
This was the defining moment that spurred Gabby’s move. Gabby’s mother decided to take the plunge and put everything on the line, despite the financial risks. Sometimes, when a gymnast decides to move gyms, the entire family goes with them. In the end, Douglas moved in with a host family that had previously offered to host a gymnast who wished to train with Chow. Here Douglas notes that, while living in Iowa, she would sometimes go several days without seeing another African American person.
Add in an overwhelming dose of home sickness that nearly caused her to quit gymnastics entirely in early 2012 in the hopes of returning to her family in Virginia, and an unwavering faith in God, and you have Gabby’s Olympic journey. Quite a lot for a girl of only sixteen to deal with.
Gabby’s success against struggles that would overwhelm much older athletes brings up a very important issue with the sport of gymnastics: in order to do well, you need money. Not every family is willing to, or even can make the kind of sacrifices that Gabby’s family did. Class and race play a much larger role in gymnastics than it may seem, but the Douglas family braved it all. At the time of Gabby’s move, there was no guarantee she would even make the team. Douglas wasn’t even on the Olympic radar at the beginning of the quad in 2009, and qualified for the 2011 Worlds team despite making several silly mistakes at Nationals of that year. At that point, she was labeled an inconsistent gymnast who had very little chance of making the Olympic team. Of course, she managed to turn that all around by 2012.
Image courtesy of Dylan Martinez/Reuters
Douglas is also lucky enough to be from the United States, a country whose sponsors ensure that the USA Gymnastics program has the best training facilities. The other top three countries are likewise rounded out by wealthy countries: Russia, Romania, and China. These countries waste no expense on their athletes, and it shows in the way their programs have dominated women’s gymnastics for decades. For the most part, the teams outside of the Big Four qualifying for the Olympics all come from countries who can afford expensive equipment and training facilities, (the best equipment can cost several thousand dollars), and those countries are generally overwhelmingly white. Of the 12 countries qualifying a full woman’s team in 2012, six of them have been European countries (Russia, Romania, Great Britain, Italy, France, and Germany). Out of the remaining six, three are English speaking countries (United States, Canada, and Australia) and two are wealthy Asian countries (China and Japan). The last remaining team to qualify was Brazil. In women’s gymnastics, the only country other than the Big Four to walk away with a medal was Great Britain’s Beth Tweddle, who won bronze on Bars.
There’s a clear trend here: in order to do well in gymnastics, you need to have money, both as an individual and a nation. And if you’re not affluent enough, you must be willing to go bankrupt in the process. Even once a country can manage to send an athlete to an Olympics, there’s still the issue of financial boundaries within the competition itself. In order for an athlete to challenge a score, that athlete must pay a fee to the judges, and these challenges can create drastic changes to the final line-up.
Gabby’s victory is inspiring on many levels. Before her there was Dominique Dawes, (pictured at right) who was the first African American woman to win an Olympic gold for gymnastics, paving the way for women of color in USA Gymnastics. With Gabby’s victory, winning the most sought after prize in gymnastics, she is proving that it is possible to overcome any obstacle set in your path. And she’s not the only gymnast making waves for women this Olympic cycle: several other countries qualified women for the first time ever, such as Singapore’s Lim Heem Wei. In addition, there is very little representation from women in Middle Eastern countries, as the required uniform leaves little room for the modesty that many Muslim women practice. This year saw three women qualifying from Egypt: two Women’s Artistic Gymnastics athletes and one Rhythmic gymnast.
Gabby joins the elite club of All Around gold medalists in the United States. Once she was a little girl inspired by the victories of Mary Lou Retton and Carly Patterson. She competed in Nastia Liukin’s competition for young upcoming Level 10 gymnasts on the cusp of the Elite scene. Now she’s one of them, hoping to inspire a new group of youngsters who also feel as though the world is working against them. Gabby’s story shows that it’s possible to be a superhero even when others don’t believe it’s possible, when you’re outnumbered and undervalued, or even when you yourself doubt your dream.