‘I want to be Gabby Douglas’: What the return of the 2012 Olympic champion means to the sport

Olympics

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The past and future of American gymnastics is colliding in Hartford, Connecticut, on Saturday. At the U.S. Classic, the first step toward this summer’s Olympic trials in Minneapolis, the past three Olympic all-around champions — Gabby Douglas, Simone Biles and Suni Lee — will compete alongside one of the most talented groups of Olympic hopefuls in history. It is a meet rife with storylines — but it is Douglas’ return to the sport that is perhaps the most unexpected plot twist of this quad.

Twelve years after becoming the first Black gymnast to win the Olympic all-around title at the 2012 London Games and inspiring a generation of Black girls to pursue elite gymnastics, Douglas returned to competition at the American Classic in Katy, Texas, in April. Now 28, she looked at times shaky and inconsistent and at others ready to reclaim the Olympic spotlight.

In Katy, Douglas’ difficulty scores on bars and beam were on par with the top gymnasts in the country and she was as good as ever landing a double-twisting Yurchenko vault. But she came off bars twice, landed low on her beam dismount and stepped out of bounds on two tumbling passes, finishing 11th overall.

But no matter the outcome this summer, Douglas has said her quest to make the Paris team is as much about ending her career on her terms as it is about proving she’s one of the five best gymnasts in the country right now. To many of the young Black women she’s competing against for those coveted spots, her return means even more.

“Seeing her up there on the podium [in London], I was, like, ‘Oh, I want to do that. I want to be there one day,'” 17-year-old Kaliya Lincoln said during a national team camp earlier this year. “That moment inspired me.”

Twelve years ago, Lincoln watched Douglas win in London and reset her goals for herself. She never imagined that, more than a decade later when she came of Olympic age in a sport once defined by youth, she’d compete against Douglas for a spot on the 2024 Olympic team.

“Not in a million years did I think I’d ever compete against Gabby,” said Lincoln, who will share the floor with Douglas for the first time Saturday. “It’s surreal. Seeing her passion and love for this sport after so many years is really inspiring.”

Until April, Douglas hadn’t competed in elite gymnastics since the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, where she became the first all-around champion since Nadia Comaneci to win the title and return to the Olympics four years later. In Rio, Douglas helped the U.S. team win a second straight team gold and qualified into the uneven bars final, where she finished seventh.

Despite finishing third overall in qualifying, Douglas was unable to defend her all-around title due to the two-per-country rule. Teammates Biles and Aly Raisman represented the U.S. and took gold and silver. Biles became the second Black woman, and fifth American woman, to win the Olympic all-around.

Five years later, at the postponed 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, Lee became the first Hmong American and the first Asian American to win the title. In 2022, Konnor McClain led the first all-around podium trio of Black gymnasts at the U.S. championships, and at the 2023 world championships in Antwerp, Belgium, in October, Biles topped the first podium of three Black gymnasts in world championship history.

“I remember looking at Simone and we were like, we did it,” two-time world champion Shilese Jones said in Antwerp. Jones is the only woman who was part of both podiums, having taken silver in the all-around at the 2022 U.S. event and bronze at 2023 worlds. “It’s been a long time coming. Sometimes I feel we get overshadowed. This means so much to younger girls and the Black community.”

Jones, who is a favorite to make the Paris team, also credits Douglas’ win in London with changing the course of her career, and her life. “I saw the 2012 Olympics and was like, ‘That’s where I want to be. I want to be Gabby Douglas,'” she said. “That’s when it clicked for me. Like, ‘Oh, we can take this to another level.'”

Jones, 21, began to formulate a plan. Three years later, at 13, she persuaded her parents to move from their hometown of Seattle to Columbus, Ohio, so she could train at Buckeye Gymnastics alongside Douglas, who trained there through the 2016 Games.

“I thought, ‘You’re elite now, but you need to get somewhere where you’re training with other elites,'” Jones said. “That’s when I moved and trained with Gabby. We became close, and I got a different view for the Olympic-style athlete.”

Skye Blakely, who is also in the mix to make this summer’s Olympic team, was 8 when she watched Douglas walk to the top step of the Olympic podium and bow her head to receive her first Olympic gold medal.

“She was Black; she looks like me and was someone I could relate to. I was like, ‘Wow, it is a possibility.'”

Skye Blakely

Throughout her career, Blakely, 19, has trained at World Olympic Gymnastics Academy in Texas, the same gym where Olympic all-around champions Carly Patterson and Nastia Liukin once trained. She said that she remembers hearing about their wins and watching replays of their performances on YouTube but that she wasn’t impacted by them in the way she was when Douglas won in London.

“It was seeing Gabby compete with my own eyes,” Blakely said. “She was Black; she looks like me and was someone I could relate to. I was like, ‘Wow, it is a possibility.’ Since then, it’s been my goal to get there. I was like, ‘I see the plan. I see the vision. Just keep working hard and you can get there, too.'”

With Douglas’ return to the sport alongside two-time Olympian Biles, 27, in a field that could yield the first over-20 Olympic team in U.S. history, Douglas is once again helping to shift perceptions of what an Olympic gymnast looks like.

“I’m only 17,” Lincoln says. “Now I look at it like, I still have a lot of time. It’s not, ‘If I don’t do good this season, then that’s it.’ I have many more years in this sport.”

That’s how Douglas once viewed her career, too. It’s why she never used the word “retired” after Rio. But she knows this is her last go-round, so she’s trying to take in every moment along the way.

“Happy and grateful to be back out there on the floor doing what I love again,” Douglas wrote on social media after competing in Katy. “With anything there are always kinks to work out, get better and improve. I’ve never been more excited to get back into the gym and work even harder … I’ll see you in Hartford.”

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