When Gabrielle Douglas isn’t flying between the uneven bars (earning the nickname “flying squirrel”) or flipping her way down a balance beam, she’s gracing the cover of Corn Flakes boxes, making cameos at the MTV Video Music Awards and sitting down with Oprah Winfrey. At age 16, Douglas won two golds at last year’s London Olympics, winning both the individual and team all-around competitions. With her double gold she became both the first African American gymnast to win the individual all around and the first American to also win the team competition. A series of high-profile appearances, including meeting the president, followed, but Douglas says she’s keeping focused on the next Olympics. Recently, she donated several personal items, including the leotard she wore during her first competitive season in 2003, to the growing collections of the new National Museum of African American History and Culture, which will open in 2015. Until then, they can be seen in the museum’s gallery at the American History Museum. Around the Mall caught up with the champion via email to talk about the donation and her future plans.
What do the items that you chose say about you, your life or stage in your career?
The items that I donated really tell the story of my journey to the Olympics. They represent me as an ordinary girl with big dreams, and as an Olympian at the peak of my gymnastics career. I wanted to share my first competition leotard because that’s where it all began for me—back home in Virginia. It’s a constant reminder to me of how far I’ve come.
Why did you choose the Smithsonian?
My mother took me and my siblings to the Smithsonian when we were much younger, and I was in awe of the amazing history. It’s such an honor to have my personal items on display at the world’s largest and most respected museum—especially in time for Black History Month. I thought that was pretty awesome.
What do you hope visitors will take away after seeing your items? What message do you hope they send?
I hope they see that my Olympic success did not happen overnight. This has been over a decade of hard work, but it all paid off. I also hope visitors will see that I could not have done this alone.They will see pictures of my family—my support system throughout this journey; and my host family, who joined forces with my mom to make sure that I reached my goal. I hope that my items send the message that anything is possible if you commit to your dream and fight for it every day. My mom taught me that success isn’t reserved for people of a specific color or background—it belongs to those who are willing to work for it.
You’ve had such incredible success, earning an impressive list of firsts. First African American woman to win gold in the individual all-around. First woman of color of any nationality to win the honor. First American athlete to win both the individual all-around and team gold medals. Which one meant the most to you and why?
You know, I think they are all equally important to me. I definitely take pride in the fact that I was able to change the face of gymnastics as the first African American woman to win gold in the individual all-around competition because I know what that means to little girls who look like me. However, winning the team gold medal was also a very special moment. It wasn’t so much about making history—I was just so happy to have the opportunity to celebrate with my teammates. Together, we brought the gold medal home to the U.S. and it felt great!
What was your favorite moment of the Olympics?
I will never forget the moment I ran and jumped in Coach (Liang) Chow’s arms after the Individual All Around Competition. I thanked him for believing in me and pushing me to reach my highest potential. I could see the pride in his eyes, and it was overwhelming. It still gives me chills when I think about that moment.
How do you think you’ve changed since the Olympics? What about since that first competitive season in 2003?
I’m asked that question all the time, but I’m just the same fun-loving Gabby. I love to hang out with family and friends, joke around, and have a great time. My family really keeps me grounded. I think, if anything, I’m more focused on using this platform I’ve been blessed to help inspire others. As for that first competitive season in 2003, I would say I’m definitely stronger and more confident. I’ve had a lot of bumps and bruises along the way, but those experiences have shown me how tough I am. I’m a fighter, and I love my competitive spirit.
What are you most looking forward to now?
My Olympic success has provided me with so many great opportunities in such a small window of time. It’s been such a whirlwind and a ton of fun. I’ve been able to meet some awesome fans who continue to encourage and support me. I’ve also made several appearances and met so many cool celebrities; I even met President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. I’m super grateful for all of these opportunities, but I’m really looking forward to getting back into the gym and working on new routines with Coach Chow. I’m ready to learn new tricks and step it up for 2016 in Rio!
The display at the American History Museum includes Douglas’ leotard as well as, ” the grip bag, wrist tape and uneven bar grips she used at the 2012 London Olympics; the ticket to the Olympics used by Douglas’ mother, Natalie Hawkins; and credentials used by Douglas to gain access to Olympic venues. Also on display will be personal photos donated by Douglas and an autographed copy of her new book Grace, Gold & Glory: My Leap of Faith.”