When the 23-year-old, three-time Olympic gold medalist listed off celebrities she had met since she vaulted, swung, balanced and flipped her way through the 2012 and 2016 Olympic games, she casually glazed over several names.
“Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Michael Phelps, Serena Williams, Dwayne Wade,” she paused. “He was pretty cool. And of course, Beyoncé…and Jay-Z was there too.
“There were bodyguards all around her and I’m thinking ‘great, how am I going to get in?’ Then she sees me and yells: ‘Gabby!’”
The crowd of about 300 erupted in laughter at Wednesday’s University Lecture Series (ULS) in the Marshall Student Center Oval Theater.
Gymnast Gabby Douglas is a star and has been since her historic performance in the 2012 London Olympic games where she became the first woman of color to win the gold medal in the all-around competition.
She was a phenom by the age of 16, but it wasn’t always that way.
Despite her incredible success early in life, becoming an accomplished gymnast on the Olympic level before most Americans her age could legally drive, Douglas faced what she called “haters” — people who try to take away from the accomplishments of others.
“I never really believed in myself and I had so many negative voices, so many naysayers telling me I couldn’t do it,” Douglas said. “They said I was a mediocre gymnast and I always believed them. That I’m not good enough, maybe I should stick to level 10 instead of going the professional, elite route.”
Douglas kept these thoughts in the back of her head while she was training for the Olympics. Her tipping point came in 2012, just before the London Olympic games, at the American Cup in New York.
“I was an alternate, but I competed because my coach wanted me to get experience,” Douglas said. “I actually ended up winning the meet but my scores didn’t count. At that moment, I was like ‘Wow, I really do have a shot at doing this.’”
Even while she was making history in London in 2012, Douglas was the target of cyberbullying. Internet attacks on chatrooms and social media posts criticized Douglas’ hair.
When Douglas returned to the Olympics in 2016, the bullying increased — people weren’t just criticizing her hair anymore.
“It was everything that I did,” she said. “When I got back home, it was still happening.”
Online critics lambasted Douglas for her perceived lack of patriotism when she didn’t place her hand over her heart in 2016 during the playing of the national anthem. Others started #CrabbyGabby on Twitter, claiming Douglas was unsupportive of her teammates Aly Raisman and Simone Biles in the individual all-around, which Douglas missed out on by a few points.
Douglas decided she wanted to do something to combat cyberbullying. She called upon the wisdom of her mother.
“My mom always told me to not prove them wrong, but prove myself right,” Douglas said. “To prove that I can do this and not to let anyone tell you or dictate what you can and what you can’t do.”
Douglas has since partnered with Hack Harassment, an organization that is dedicated to putting an end to cyberbullying.
Training to be an Olympic athlete, Douglas said, was a full-time job she had as a child. Now, she’s finding out what else she wants to do with her life as someone who has already achieved so much at such a young age.
“I spent my life in the gym. 14 years,” Douglas said. “People had been telling me what to wear, how to do things, where to be and everything was pretty much dictated for us. Now that I’m not training at the moment, I get to come into my own and grow as a woman and an individual.
“I really get to find out who I am. Who Gabby Douglas is without gymnastics and without anyone telling me what to do and how to do it.”