Gabby Douglas, Gold-Medal Olympic Gymnast, Rockets to Stardom
LONDON — Gabby Douglas, the newly minted American sweetheart and Olympic champion in the all-around, returned to the athletes’ village on Thursday to end her night by doing what every teenager would do: She Googled herself.
There, filling the computer screen, was her name again and again, and photos of her, again and again.
“Everything popped up,” the 16-year-old Douglas said with her trademark giggle. “Gabby Douglas wins the all-around. Gabby Douglas makes history. It definitely was an amazing thing!”
Douglas, a 4-foot-11, 94-pound puny package of rocket-fueled energy, on Thursday became the first black gymnast to win the individual all-around Olympic gold medal. She also became the first American to win both the all-around and team events at the same Olympics, and only the fourth American woman to win the all-around title.
But Douglas said the gravity of that has not hit her. She forgot to bring her gold medals to an appearance on NBC’s Today Show on Friday, leaving them “somewhere in her room.” Later, she was surprised when a fan driving by slammed on the brakes, stopping to beg Douglas for a photo.
“What are you doing?” Douglas said she was thinking when the fan had stopped. “Oh, yeah, I remember now. Sure.”
Mary Lou Retton, the 1984 Olympic all-around champion, has told Douglas to get used to the attention. While Douglas might not realize it now — “You live in the village and everybody’s got medals,” Retton said — winning the all-around is life-changing.
At the 1984 Los Angeles Games, Retton was just a young girl from West Virginia trying to make it big in a sport dominated by Eastern Europeans. She was the first American to win the all-around title, skyrocketing her into stardom, and her megawatt smile and girl-next-door demeanor made her even bigger. She said fans still stop to tell her they remember where they were when she won her Olympic title.
“Oh my gosh, yes, she’s clueless as to what she has done until she gets back to the States,” Retton said of Douglas. “Literally, a seven-year-old is watching the Olympics, and that seed is going to be placed and they’re going to say, ‘I’m going to be just like her.’ She’s going to break barriers on so many different levels.”
Douglas, who left her family in Virginia Beach when she was 14 to train in Iowa, said she wants to be a role model for minorities. One of her two sponsors, Kellogg’s, has spoken to her agent, Sheryl Shade, about outreach in minority communities. Plans are also in the works for Douglas to take part in Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign to promote exercise.
But her success also is a boon for gymnastics in the United States, said Bela Karolyi, the legendary coach who counts Retton among his pupils.
“Thousands and thousands of African-American kids are going to go into gymnastics because of her because they will want to be the new Gabby Douglas,” he said. “With Mary Lou in 1984, her popularity doubled the number of gymnastics participants in this country. I expect a similar effect with Gabby. She came out of nowhere and was an explosion, boom! She’s going to be huge, huge.”
Just how huge she will be remains unclear, but Douglas has the potential to make millions not just because of her success — but also because she is so perky. The ever-effervescent Retton is still doing television commercials when the Olympics roll around.
Bob Williams, chief executive of Burns Entertainment & Sports Marketing, a company that matches advertisers with celebrities for endorsements, said the all-around gold medal is the route to a seven-figure endorsement, at least.
Advertisers have been colorblind for years, he said, so it doesn’t matter if she is black or white — what counts most is personality.
“It’s not like Nastia Liukin or the other recent all-around gymnasts didn’t have that, they just didn’t have it as much,” he said. “In Gabby, you see the smile, the personality, the warmth. There’s a number of similarities to her and Mary Lou. The one disadvantage is that she really did peak at the Olympics, so we’re just getting to know her.”
Douglas didn’t win her first major competition until last month, when she beat world champion Jordyn Wieber at Olympic trials. She signed her first deal, with Procter & Gamble, a few days later.
At first, her mother, Natalie Hawkins, was nervous that all the top sponsorships were taken. But she had already made the wise but difficult decision to let Douglas train 1,200 miles away, and felt in her gut that waiting until the Olympics to sign more sponsorships was the right thing to do.
Hawkins, a single mother and debt collector, now can see that her intuition was spot on. Less than 18 hours after winning the all-around, Douglas was already on the cover of a cereal box, Corn Flakes. Her rise into celebrity was steep.
Douglas received shout-outs from celebrities like Beyoncé, who dedicated a page of her blog to her. “WOW — what a thrill to watch you take this Gold!” she wrote. “Thank you for inspiring all of us!”
Lil Wayne also posted a tweet about her. “Glad I lived to see what Gabby Douglas did in the Olympics. Icon,” he wrote. (He is her favorite rapper, but said she listens to clean versions of his songs “because my mom said I can’t put into my head all that swearing.”)
Several proposals for dates have come in, but Douglas never has had a boyfriend and Hawkins wants to keep it that way for now.
“I don’t think you can prepare for that,” said Hawkins, as she stood with her three other children. “What I just try to do, I just try to lean on the morals and the values that my parents taught me and the morals and values that I’ve instilled in them. We’re a pretty grounded family.”
Douglas’s Olympic experience isn’t over yet, though. She still has the uneven bars final on Monday, and the balance beam final on Tuesday. And her coach, Liang Chow, isn’t sure how she will come back to earth by then because the distractions are coming rapid-fire.
“How can I stop it?” Chow said with a laugh. “There’s no way to stop it.”