Gabby Douglas: Impact Far Beyond Sports

Loose Ball: She might inspire more black girls to try gymnastics, but that's not the big picture.

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

(The Root) — Truth be told, we weren’t that inspired by Olympians like Michael Jordan and Carl Lewis. While they dominated their sports like few have ever done, it’s commonplace to see African Americans conquer basketball and track and field. This is by no means a putdown, but seeing Jordan and Lewis excel in their chosen arenas was as stimulating as hearing Jay-Z master the rap game.

The same can’t be said of extraordinary teen gymnast Gabby Douglas, the first African American to win the individual all-around Olympic gold medal. Watching her fly through the air, twisting and flipping over the various apparatuses, triggers a flood of emotions that ballers and sprinters simply can’t unleash (through no fault of their own).

That’s why Gabby’s impact will extend far beyond sports. Jordan and Lewis served as role models for countless basketball players and track stars who followed, just as Jordan and Lewis had a number of predecessors to emulate. Gabby had Dominique Dawes, the three-time Olympian who in 1996 became the first female African-American gymnast to win an individual medal.

The number of young black girls who decided to try gymnastics undoubtedly surged thanks to Dawes’ emergence. And there’s likely to be a new wave of interest, now that Douglas has two gold medals and a chance to win more. But just as Dawes didn’t spawn an influx of black Olympic gymnasts, Gabby is unlikely to change the demographics dramatically.

However, Gabby is positioned to change something much more significant — namely, the realm of possibility. Her performance thus far — and her remarkable story of dedication, sacrifice and perseverance — has broadened the horizons of little black girls and little black boys. Grown men and women, too.

“I hope I inspire people,” Douglas said after her historic win. “I want to inspire people!” She summed up her message thusly: “If you’re having a hard time, never give up! Always keep fighting!”

That sounds as corny as it gets, but it comes from someone who moved across the country at 14 to live with a family she didn’t know in a community where few people look like her. We could roll our eyes if she were the heroine of a Disney movie, but hers is a real-life story, gold medal and all. “I have never seen a gymnast climb from an average gymnast to the best in the world in five months,” said U.S. Olympic team coordinator Martha Karolyi.

Gabby moved from Virginia Beach, Va., to West Des Moines, Iowa, to train under Liang Chow, who coached Shawn Johnson to Olympic gold in 2008. Asked if he imagined Gabby reaching this point when they began working together two years ago, Chow said, “No.”

Gabby’s mother, Natalie Hawkins, never envisioned it, either, which provides another important lesson. Hawkins didn’t squash the dream and kill the ambition, even though she was fearful and hesitant to let her daughter leave. Instead, recognizing that Gabby was gifted and driven, Hawkins encouraged her child to go for it.