Friday, August 2, 2013

August 2, 2012: Gabby's Gold

LONDON - One of the first questions Gabby Douglas faced, with the gold medal still around her neck and the final chords of the Star Spangled Banner seemingly still hanging in the air, was the most predictable one: "What are your thoughts on becoming the first black woman to win the individual gold medal in gymnastics?"

Douglas' initial response was telling: "Oh gosh, I'd completely forgotten about that." And then she went to give a perfectly fine answer that was perfectly atypical of a 16-year-old being asked to speak extemporaneously on the world stage. But there was a moment there, however brief, when, just maybe, the color of her skin didn't matter. If she had forgotten it was an important moment, maybe it wasn't so important?

Of course, she could have been caught up in the whole proceedings. After the individual all-arounds were over, Douglas admitted she broke the cardinal rule of people in the lead by looking at the scoreboard. And she did so after every round. So she knew going into the floor routine that she had a .03-point lead, and that any slip would cost her the gold. But she didn't slip. Her music blared and she bounced around the mat like her legs were made of springs, and when she stuck the landing at the end of the routine, her big smile lit up the arena. Her closest competitors still had to go, but she knew she had won the gold.

And so came her moment, when the national anthem was played and she stood on the middle spot on the podium between two Russians who were supposed to defeat her handily. It was a moment when she momentarily forgot the historic significance, when instead of being the first woman of color to win, she simply became the third straight American woman to win all-around gold. Race didn't matter.

Or ... maybe it did. Because realistically, Gabby Douglas should have become more famous than she did. She had the great back story - she moved from Virginia to Iowa by herself at age 14 to train for this very moment - she had the great personality and the world-class smile. And sure, she got plenty of special notice at first from the late night talk shows and from Oprah and so on. But things didn't seem quite right.

Immediately after winning her gold, after all the compliments and people gushing about her life story, Douglas started to inexplicably face questions about her hair. And the problem was ... well, I'm not sure, really. That her hair wasn't picture perfect? It's hard to say. What was certain is that we were criticizing how a 16-year-old's hair looked while she was winning a gold medal.

Then Douglas completely faltered in the individual event finals, failing to medal in any of them after being so dominant in the all-around competition. That gave her the appearance of a flash in the pan, someone who had one great moment and would never begin to duplicate it. People started wondering if she was a fluke, that she won the gold medal that was destined to go to her teammate Jordyn Wieber (who, incidentally, got more publicity for crying after not making the all-around final than Douglas got for making it). Then McKayla Maroney was unimpressed with her silver in the vault and became exponentially more famous than Douglas.

That wasn't it, either. Douglas appeared on the cover of Corn Flakes, not Wheaties. That was weird. She spoke to Oprah about the difficulties of being a black gymnast, about the racial abuse she received in training in Iowa, and was instantly called a liar. She was the all-around gymnastics champion, but she already seemed to be getting pushed aside. It's not like she was getting ignored, per se, but it seemed more and more that when she made an appearance on a talk show, it was with her four other teammates.

And what, exactly, had she done? When she won, she was happy yet humble, was friendly and God-fearing, and showed the appropriate balance between awe at what she had done and the confidence that she knew all along what was going to happen. In short, she did everything right and nothing wrong.

It could mean nothing, of course. There have been times where the best athlete on a team is not the most famous, or second-most famous. It could be a coincidence.

Or it might not be.

No matter what, though, Gabby Douglas made history. Whether that kind of history is still important in 2012 is up for debate, but what she accomplished will never be taken away from her. Because she was more than just the first black gymnastics champion. On August 2, 2012, Gabby Douglas was the best gymnast in the world.

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