One of America’s greatest Olympians almost skipped the games to take a fast-food job.
At a snowy Iowa parking lot in January 2012—with the Summer Olympics only a few months away—16-year-old Gabby Douglas was due to start her daily practice. Instead she blurted to her mother, Natalie Hawkins, that she wanted to abandon gymnastics and take a job at Chick-fil-A.
“I’m not going in,” Gabby told her mom as they sat in a car outside the West Des Moines gym where she had trained for more than a year after moving from Virginia to live out her Olympic dreams. (The rest of the family—her mother, two sisters, brother and grandmother—had stayed back east.)
“What are you talking about?” asked Hawkins, who was visiting Gabby for the holidays and her birthday.
To avoid an emotional outburst in response, Gabby handed her mother a cellphone where she had typed a message about wanting to quit the sport.
Hawkins read the words on the phone. “I feel like this isn’t my passion anymore. I want to try something different, like run track or take a dance class,” Hawkins remembered her daughter writing. “I can work at Chick-fil-A. I can get a job.”
Four years after almost ending her gymnastics career, Douglas explains what was going through her mind that day. “I wanted to quit because I was so homesick, and even though the Olympics were right around the corner, they felt like forever away,” Douglas says. “I wanted to quit. I wanted to work at Chick-fil-A. I had it all planned in my head, thinking I was going to run track or something. I know now it was crazy.”
“That was her favorite place to eat,” Hawkins says. “She loved the milkshakes and the waffle fries. So in that emotional moment, she decided that was where she was going to spend her days.”
As Gabby waited for her mother’s reaction, a lifetime of competition and training—not to mention her Olympic ambitions—hung in the balance.
After achieving international fame with gold medals in the individual and team competitions at those 2012 London Olympics, Douglas hopes to make history again this August during the summer games in Rio de Janeiro. She wants to win gold again, and this time her determination is steadfast.
Underneath her friendly exterior, she is a seasoned competitor who chases an accomplishment that has eluded some of the world’s greatest gymnasts. Douglas, the first African-American to win a gold medal in the individual all-around gymnastics event, hopes to successfully defend her title in Rio.
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That is a very difficult task. The last all-around champion to win a second gold was Czech gymnast Vera Caslavska, who repeated in Mexico City in 1968, four years after first striking gold in Tokyo. Soviet gymnast Ludmilla Tourischeva won the all-around gold medal in Munich in 1972 but had to settle for a bronze in 1976, when the legendary Romanian Olympian Nadia Comaneci struck gold. But Comaneci couldn’t repeat either, tying for silver in Moscow’s 1980 games behind Yelena Davydova from the Soviet Union.
Yet Douglas has been beating the odds from an early age. Originally from Virginia Beach, she was introduced to gymnastics at age 3 by sister Arielle. “Arielle was doing these tricks, and I wanted to do that,” Douglas says, describing how her passion for the sport began. “She was teaching me to do cartwheels. My mom said I taught myself how to do it.”
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Gabby didn’t start her formal training until she was 6, though, because her mother had some reservations. “My older sister told my mom to put me in gymnastics classes, but she was hesitant because my sister fractured a wrist. My mom said, ‘I can’t put the baby in. I can’t let the baby get hurt.’ ”
Once Gabby took up the sport, she achieved rapid success. Two years after starting her formal training, in 2004, she captured the Virginia state all-around Level 4 gymnastics title, which is the first level of Junior Olympics competition. Success at the national level followed; in 2008 she placed in the top 10 in the U.S. Classic, an event for the highest-level potential Olympians. A wrist injury slowed her down in 2009, but she bounced back the next year with strong showings across the country, including a silver medal in the U.S. Junior National Championships and a gold medal at the Pan American Championships in Mexico.
In her lead-up to the Olympics, Gabby had to make many sacrifices. At age 14, she moved to Iowa to train with Liang Chow, who coached many top U.S. gymnasts, including Shawn Johnson, who won a gold medal for balance beam and took home silver for team, all-around and floor exercise in 2008.
Allowing Gabby to move to Iowa was a difficult decision for the protective Hawkins, who seldom even let her kids sleep over at friends’ houses. Partly swayed by Gabby’s sisters’ support of her campaign, the concerned mother reluctantly agreed to the move. “I had to go so deep inside myself to send her out to Iowa,” says Hawkins, explaining that she did so only after Gabby made the case that she couldn’t progress toward the Olympics if she trained in Virginia. “I knew what she was saying was true.
“I could either move out of the way and allow her to fully pursue her dreams, or I could stand in her way and hinder her. As a mom, I had to decide which one I could live with and look at myself in the mirror each morning.”
The wrenching decision paid off. Once Gabby was based in Iowa and overcame a hamstring injury, she achieved more success in national and international competitions. Martha Karolyi, national team coordinator for USA Gymnastics (the national governing board of gymnastics) as well as the wife of legendary gymnastics coach Bela Károlyi, marveled at her abilities and dubbed her the “Flying Squirrel.”
Before the 2012 Olympics concluded, she became the face of Team USA, a bona fide rock star.
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If a 16-year-old can have a defining moment, though, the parking-lot confrontation in Iowa was exactly that for Douglas, who vividly remembers her mother’s reaction to the message on her phone.
“She drove out of the parking lot, and she was just hitting the steering wheel,” Douglas recalls. “She was saying, ‘Why, why, why, why?’ I asked her to pull over since she was beating the steering wheel. As a single parent, she had put a lot into my career, so much effort and sacrifices and working all the time. She thought I wanted to give up, and she was devastated. She saw that I had this talent and I could make it, but she just asked why I wanted to do this.
“She was bawling and saying, ‘You’re going to prove everyone right.’ Everyone at that time was doubting me, saying I couldn’t do it. It was really bad. She asked, ‘Don’t you want to prove yourself right, that you can do it? You can do this.’
“I remember like it was yesterday because it was such a deep conversation, and it was very emotional.”
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Looking back on that moment, Hawkins remembered thinking her daughter had been the one pushing to get to Iowa and was now talking about throwing it all away. “I didn’t immediately start crying,” Hawkins says. “I immediately started yelling.”
With great sacrifices come great victories. She had to keep her eyes on the victories at the end of the road.”
But Hawkins did understand Gabby’s desire to quit. “She wanted to spend time with her siblings. She hadn’t seen them in a while. She loves spending time with her siblings. They’re all extremely close. I understood, but this was part of the hard sacrifice we talked about [before Gabby went down this path]. With great sacrifices come great victories. She had to keep her eyes on the victories at the end of the road.”
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Hawkins’ attempt to rally her daughter’s spirits in the parking lot proved fruitless. Gabby wasn’t buying it. “I don’t want to continue,” she said.
“You don’t get to choose that,” persisted Hawkins, who in 2009 had gone on disability from her job with a bank. She had also declared bankruptcy and faced foreclosure on the family’s home during Gabby’s Olympic quest. “You have taken us all along on this journey,” she told her daughter. “You’re not the only one on this journey. Your siblings have sacrificed so much.”
Nobody wants to see someone they love fail. Worse than that, you don’t want to see someone you love give up.”
Looking back on the situation four years later, Hawkins says she wanted to ensure her daughter never gave up and had to live with lifelong regrets. “I didn’t want to throw it in her face that we did all this for her,” says Hawkins, alluding to the fine line she had to walk as both her mother and supporter. “We wanted her to do whatever she wanted to do for herself. Nobody wants to see someone they love fail. Worse than that, you don’t want to see someone you love give up.”
As part of America’s “Fierce Five” gold-medal-winning team of female gymnasts and as winner of the gold for individual performance in the 2012 games, Gabby almost instantly became an American icon. Her picture appeared on magazine covers, on boxes of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes and in Nintendo 3DS commercials. When Democratic delegates gathered in Charlotte, North Carolina, to nominate Barack Obama for a second presidential term in September 2012, Gabby—not yet old enough to vote—opened the convention by leading the party faithful in the Pledge of Allegiance. She made the media rounds, including an impressive appearance on Oprah. At the end of 2012, she published her autobiography Grace, Gold, and Glory: My Leap of Faith, which made best-seller lists.
For about a year, Gabby Douglas appeared to be done with gymnastics. TV’s Lifetime channel made a movie about her, and she settled down in Los Angeles, where her family had relocated to advance the Olympic heroine’s endorsement career.
But Douglas latched onto a new Olympic dream: to repeat as a gold medalist in 2016, a tantalizing, yet daunting, challenge. In nearly a half-century, no female gymnast had repeated as all-around champion. Douglas resumed training, working with Chow for several months in 2013, only to leave his gym to move to Los Angeles, reportedly to work with a new trainer there. Then she resumed training with Chow in early 2014, only to leave his gym again later that year.
The trainer turnover led critics to doubt her commitment to another Olympic run even as she was named to the national team in 2014. Douglas insists she changed coaches only to stay close to family in Los Angeles, and she silenced many critics in March 2016 with a victory at the AT&T American Cup and by winning the all-around title at the City of Jesolo Trophy competition in Italy.
The naysayers resurfaced in May 2016 with the premiere of Douglas Family Gold, the Oxygen channel’s six-episode reality show about the gymnast and her family. They questioned whether Douglas was more dedicated to celebrity than to her sport.
Martha Karolyi thinks otherwise. She is optimistic about Douglas’s chances of attaining back-to-back Olympic gold for her individual performance in gymnastics. “She is determined. She is already focusing on the task, and she knows training is No. 1. She may just be the one who will be able to do it. It will not be easy, but she puts out a great effort in preparation.” Karolyi’s assessment is especially significant because she was part of the training team for Nadia Comaneci in the 1980 Moscow games, when she tried but failed to win gold for individual performance in consecutive games.
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Karolyi knows that as defending champion, Douglas will deal with all sorts of distractions. “Once you win an Olympic games, a gold medal, you become a star, a celebrity. A lot of opportunities open for you, and there’s a lot of attention,” Karolyi says. “That may interfere with your training. The training cannot be replaced with anything else. If she is able to combine all of this [media coverage and the TV show] with the regimented training, then she will be fine. If there’s something that prevents her from training systematically, then we are looking for trouble. So far she’s on the right track.”
Of course, Douglas has faced doubters before… including herself.
On that snowy day in Iowa, instead of making Gabby practice, Hawkins drove her back to the hotel where her brother, Johnathan, and sister Joyelle were cooped up.
“There was an overwhelming sense of panic,” Hawkins says. “I thought about all that we had done, all the people—family, friends, supporters—we had brought along that journey.”
Hawkins told Gabby that if she wanted to quit, she would have to break the news to everyone herself, from her siblings to her coaches. “In the car, I told her it would not be me telling everyone. It would be all her. I knew it would be humiliating. It would be embarrassing.”
As a start, Hawkins made Gabby tell her brother and sister about her plans to walk away. Considering that Joyelle had given up her own hope of becoming a championship figure skater so Douglas could train in Iowa, the siblings quickly and forcefully voiced their disapproval.
Faced with this kind of resistance, Gabby agreed to hold off on a final decision while her family returned to Virginia. Hawkins didn’t speak to her daughter for a few days, and life regained its equilibrium as Gabby resumed training for the London games.
Looking back, Douglas credits her family, which she calls the foundation of all she is, with helping her push through this tough period. “My foundation stood behind me and said, ‘You can’t give up.’ They felt I had this talent, and they wanted the best for me.
“My mom, my two sisters, my brother, my grandmother—they just didn’t want to support a quitter. They didn’t want to support me having this beautiful talent and just wasting it. They said, ‘Even if you don’t make it, at the end of the day, you can say you gave it your all.’ I think that’s what is the most important, that you give it your all and you see what’s next.”
Today Douglas, 20, faces an even bigger Olympics challenge.
She hears the murmurs about her being too old for gold and ignores them. “I don’t know why they say that. I don’t remember who it was, but I remember watching a championship, and the commentator said, ‘At 17, she’s pretty old for her sport.’ I said, What, 17? You’re just born. I honestly don’t know why they say that. Probably because you get a little bit older, and you get slower. They are looking for these fresh babies who can do a lot of repetitions, and the pressure won’t get to them. But the older girls can hit [perform exceptional routines], too. I’m pretty sure that’s why they say that because some gymnasts aren’t as quick, but I can keep up.”
Douglas concedes that her return—with a full-grown body and many months of rust to shake off—hasn’t been easy. She is 3 inches taller and more muscular than she was as a 16-year-old, although her shoulders are more flexible after continued stretching and training. “It is very challenging to come back because when you take time off, it’s natural that your body changes. You experience that freedom of doing whatever you want, getting up at whatever time you want and not working out as much. It’s hard getting back in the rhythm and getting back into the swing of things, having that discipline of getting up early. Then your body changes. You’re often not as quick and fast as you need to be, which means more training is needed. There’s more work involved. Those are some of the things that make it a little bit difficult.”
Looking ahead to Rio, Douglas insists she is much more prepared and in far better shape than she was for the London games. “I really feel like I’m stronger now than before—I really do. I feel like I’m much quicker and much faster this time than in 2012. I completely changed everything around.
“When I was 15, I ate a lot of junk food. I would always feel a little sore, and my body was a little achy. I’ve completely changed my diet and drink more water, and it’s really helped me. My body feels more recovered. I just feel good.”
As she looks to claim another piece of sports history, Douglas says the world hasn’t seen her at her best, something she hopes to display in Rio. “A lot of people are like, ‘Oh, you won gold at the Olympics, and you should be done.’ But I feel like I haven’t reached my full potential, and I want to. I feel so good mentally, and I’m at a good place right now. My body is doing great, so why not give it a shot again?”
Douglas says she has more confidence than ever, and she emphasizes that she is more interested in competing against the best gymnasts in the world than in becoming a bigger star or more of a household name. “The experience is fun, and competition—especially on that big stage—is a huge honor. It’s fun to compete with your teammates and your friends.”
Her focus, like her fitness and confidence, has also improved over 2012, Douglas says. “I just take one day at a time and one event at a time. When I’m focused on something, I really just hone in on it and focus on that…. I’m going all out.”
Douglas’s perky personality masks a fiercely competitive core. “I’ve got goals in the back of my mind. This is the main goal: Keep pushing and striving.”
She hates failing, and she says that motivates her more than medals. “Hating to lose goes very deep. This isn’t just about losing in competitions. Even when I do my very best, there’s still something that I feel like I could have done better. I’m such a perfectionist. Everything for me has to be perfect and very precise.”
Of course, every athlete worries about choking under pressure. Douglas—who, as defending champion, deals with the added pressure of constant media scrutiny—says training is the antidote. “In the gym, we do pressure sets where everybody cheers, claps and makes noise. We’re trained to get in a zone and perform in that specific circumstance. Everyone from the gym, from the little girls to the coaches, comes over to watch. It’s nerve-racking because all these eyes are on me. They cheer really loud, trying to get you distracted.”
Douglas says she’s ready for the pressure as well as the physical tests coming up in Rio. One sliver of her preparation has been to watch her performance in London. “It’s actually pretty crazy for me to think about,” the gymnast says. “I was watching the footage and reminiscing. I spent eight years of training for a minute and 30 seconds at the Olympic Games, and that’s it. One minute, 30 seconds, and that’s it. You put in all this time training—but it was definitely worth it. At the same time, it’s kind of crazy.”
That realization strengthens Douglas’s resolve to make the most of her minute and a half. “The goal is to get more medals in 2016.” London will be a huge help, she says. “I’m fortunate to have that experience. Now I’m going to know what it’s like and what to expect.”
And a year from now, what will she be doing? “I don’t know. I’ll have to ponder that more.”
Douglas lives in the highly focused present, although she occasionally returns to that tense conversation in Iowa when her mother reinforced the idea that young Gabby possessed the talent to prove herself worthy of the Olympic squad.
“It was a really deep conversation,” Douglas says. “It was deep. But it was mainly, ‘You can do it.’ ”
This article originally appeared in the September 2016 issue of SUCCESS magazine.