Gabby Douglas on Quieting Her Doubters

The Olympic gold-medal winner, who has a new memoir, tells how she turned negatives into positives.

Gabby Douglas (Scott Wynn/Zondervan)
Gabby Douglas (Scott Wynn/Zondervan)

(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 black 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.