The stormy highs and lows of life as an Olympics star hit Gabby Douglas in full force this month in Rio de Janeiro, her triumphs and tribulations alike compressed into just a few whirlwind days.
The U.S. gymnastics squad dominated the team competition last week, helping 20-year-old Douglas earn her third career gold medal. But online and in the media, her every move was dissected by hawkishly critical observers.
Was she supporting teammates enough? Why didn’t she put her hand over her heart for the national anthem? Why isn’t she acting the precise way we want her to act? The surprise controversy snowballed into a surreal online battle between Douglas’ detractors and defenders, who rallied behind her using the hashtag #LOVE4GABBYUSA .
By week’s end, the dust has settled on that drama but it still lingers. Douglas’ Olympics are over and we’re speaking by phone. Asked to describe her tumultuous 2016 Olympics experience in just one word, Douglas pauses.
“Extraordinary,” she says.
Then she pauses again.
Yeah. That’s it.
“Eventful,” Douglas says again. She’s settled on the word now, and her tone is more somber.
Loved in London, ridiculed in Rio
Douglas at this summer’s Olympics represented a confluence of the strangeness inherent in both her sport and the modern social media age.
Four years ago in London, the U.S. won the team competition and at just 16 years old Douglas became the first African American woman to win gold in the individual all-around contest. She was Olympics royalty. The Lifetime TV network made a biopic about her, called simply The Gabby Douglas Story. Her family’s life improved.
Then, after some months, she faded from popular consciousness, as even famous gymnasts do in non-Olympics years. When the mainstream spotlight again turned to her sport for Rio, things had changed.
Simone Biles was now the U.S. star, and being hailed as the greatest female gymnast ever. Aly Raisman settled into the co-starring role. Within two hyper-intense periods over a four-year span, Douglas had been relegated from celebrated to outdated and all before she could legally order a beer.
Online, meanwhile, she became a target.
When she stood with hands at her sides during a national anthem, columnists and commenters fulminated. Some also spun conspiracy theories when they determined Douglas didn’t demonstrate enough pep while watching a Biles routine. Trolls even went after the texture of her hair.
The comedian, actress and Twitter celebrity Leslie Jones then organized a counter-insurgence using the hashtag #LOVE4GABBYUSA, helping give the sour story a slight redemption.
Douglas now says she was “so grateful and really thankful” for the outpouring of support online, which “definitely meant a lot.”
Even the topic itself is strange, though and indicative of a time in which viral online spectacles often overshadow the actual events that produce them. You’re in conversation with a three-time gold medalist, an Olympics legend, and the topic that’s been making the most headlines lately is … what some idiots said about her online?
Douglas doesn’t want to talk about the episode much more. Can you blame her?
What’s really real
Here’s what all the the outrage and the counter-outrage and the subsequent think-pieces and editorials overshadowed: Gabby Douglas is one of the greatest female gymnasts ever. She’ll forever hold a place in history for her groundbreaking all-around individual win in London. And if this is the last we saw of her on the Olympics stage, she could have gone out a whole lot worse.
Douglas has now won team gold medals in two consecutive Olympics. But this one came with extra sweetness as the U.S. gymnasts sent retiring national team coordinator Martha Karolyi off in style. The 73-year-old Karolyi spent her life with the sport and helped lead U.S. gymnastics to its current position of global domination.
Douglas and her teammates Biles, Raisman, Laurie Hernandez and Madison Kocian dubbed themselves the “Final Five” on their quest to win Karolyi one last gold medal. Looking back about a week after winning, Douglas gushes.
“Being a part of that was amazing,” she says of Karolyi now. “She’s done so much and under her umbrella they’ve really just developed this program to a point where the USA can be so strong. To be a part of her last journey is amazing. She’s so loving and I’m so glad I got to be on this team where we’re her last one. She’s a legend.”
Douglas is a legend in her own right as well, lest we forget. She still has the trappings and obligations of a star, too, and says by phone she’ll stay in Rio until just before Sunday’s closing ceremony to hang out and make appearances.
As an elder stateswoman of sorts in Rio at just 20 years old, Douglas also has a unique perspective on the fame that awaits Biles when the Olympics end.
See you in Tokyo?
Four years ago, it was Douglas who made history. Four years ago, it was Douglas whose magnetism the spotlight couldn’t resist. Four years ago, it was Douglas who was a revelation on her sport’s biggest stage.
“For the most part it was just really fun, really crazy,” Douglas says of her post-London celebrity.
Now, however, it’s Biles who’s about to begin the rest of her life after becoming a teenage Olympics star.
“I’ve just told her to keep really good people around and have fun and enjoy yourself,” Douglas says. “It’s gonna get crazy, but it’s gonna be fun, so stay close to your family and the people who have cared about you, because that’s your best support system.”
This isn’t quite it for Douglas, Biles and company as the Final Five, however. After the games, they’ll make a 36-city American tour meant to capitalize on their Olympics buzz.
Soon after that, a decision about Tokyo 2020 will loom. Douglas definitely hasn’t ruled it out, but the mental and physical grind is a serious commitment.
“I’ve already done this not once, but twice,” she says.
Douglas is right, of course. With the passage of time, hopefully that’s what the world will remember: Her three gold medals in two Olympics and her historic 2012 all-around, not the online shenanigans that, as she says, made 2016 so “eventful.”