FOX Sports Exclusive
Douglas is symbol for American Dream
The area athletes funnel into after competition was nearly empty, the gymnasts she’d bested having slipped away one by one, and still Gabby Douglas stayed, her innocence and her joy and the afterglow of the exceptional performance that captured the all-around gold medal making a grumpy throng of reporters smile shyly despite themselves.
She clasped a blue Powerade in one hand and a bouquet in the other, the neon of her Nikes glowing yellow in the shadow of the scrum, but it was the gold medal around her neck that dwarfed her tiny figure, dwarfed everything.
She’d earned every karat of gold with a 62.232 score, trumping silver-medalist Victoria Komova, bronze-medalist Aliya Mustafinia and fourth-place finisher and fellow American Aly Raisman, who lost out on bronze in a tiebreaker.
And in earning that, she’d become more than an Olympic champion: She’d become a personification of the American Dream itself, a young black woman who’d made gymnastics history, shattered racial barriers and represented to all of us the very best of America.
All night, Douglas had paced the pink floor of the gymnastics individual final as if this was her destiny, moving with a steely eye and tendency to sit down, away from her competitors, and stare in utter focus at the ground. Then she’d stalk her rotation, attack it with vigor, and retreat back into herself.
That focus is what propelled her to kick off the competition with a 15.966 on the vault and a first-place lead she would hold all day, but now that it was over she giggled as she talked, again and again. She used words like “awesome” over and over. She was a kid, and she was also something more. It hadn’t sunk in yet. The joy was still rolling over her in waves, and what she’d done — its history, its meaning, the deep emotional connection it has to those back home who’d hoped with her during every movement of her routines — it was then just beginning to come into focus.
“I just wanted to seize the moment,” the 16-year-old said. “It hasn’t sunk in yet. The team final hasn’t sunk yet. It will though. It will.”
It will for her, and it will for all of us, too. It is sinking even now, that joy that we felt when Douglas became the first American to win both a team gold medal and the individual all-around gold medal morphing into the meaning behind those feelings. This was special, what happened in London, something transcendent to fight back against the pessimism rampant in today’s headlines and worries.
Douglas — bouncing up and down in her glowing shoes, smiling, throwing out jokes and being so innocent, so much the happy kid she was — had become a walking, visceral, inspiring projection of the American Dream. All that’s great about our country was suddenly reflected in a golden hue from Gabby Douglas right back at us.
It warmed us as we watched or followed online at home, as she went to the bars and flew with grace and beauty and landed with a 15.733, as she owned the beam with a 15.5, as she went to the floor and was every bit a champion, and as we waited for Komova to follow her on that routine and come up short.
Some of us cried, some of us jumped off of our couches and screamed and pumped our fists and felt that burning pride, some of us lowered our heads and breathed a long, sweet sigh of relief. Some of us pretended we would be her someday, or that our daughters would be her, or at least that this kind of joy and innocence would last.
Some saw in Gabby our own youth and vigor alive again in her, and they felt those butterflies that come when a perfect memory flitters back into our mind. Only this perfect memory was unfolding around us, it was including us, and it was making us feel alive and proud and connected at the same time. Any American who watched with clear eyes and an open heart — who for just a moment detached themselves from the ever-pounding cynicism of our world — couldn’t help but be moved. It was hard in that moment not to see the best parts of ourselves in her.
If Douglas represents anything, it is that what we want to believe about the American Dream remains true. It is less a forever-fixed target to be achieved than an organic promise — it is something that evolves, that grows, that with every generation becomes even more worthy to its name than in the one before it.
That’s the promise of America, and its Dream: Not just that you can have a life that’s a blessing and safe and full of meaning and joy but that your children can chase one better than the one before it. That in our country, even today and with all its problems, the progress of what’s possible keeps expanding and offering itself in better, deeper ways than those before. Gabby Douglas is a young black woman who conquered a white sport, but in conquering it she also reflected the success not just of people who look like her but of people who, like her, are Americans and believe deeply in its inherent promise.
As the first black gymnast to win an all-around gold medal, Douglas is the culmination of a process reaching back to Dominique Dawes, one built one block of hope and opportunity at a time. Except for the 2008 Games in Beijing, the American women’s gymnastics team has featured at least one person of color going back to Dawes’ first Olympics in Barcelona in 1992.
“That’s why it made such an impact,” Dawes said Thursday after emotionally cheering for Douglas throughout the competition. “Being first always makes it more important. I was first, but the big difference with Gabby is she’ll have a gold team and her own gold. It’s huge. Huge.”
In that light, Douglas’ accomplishment was less a breakthrough than a crowning achievement of a process that’s long been underway. But her greatness is not limited to that alone. She was a gymnast few believed in, even two years ago, when she moved to Des Moines, Iowa, to train with Yiang Chow.
Asked Thursday if he saw an Olympian the day she walked through his door, he laughed. “No.”
No one did.
“She (was) so great in improvement that it’s incredible in this short time,” said Marta Karolyi, the national team coordinator. “I haven’t seen any gymnast go from an average-good gymnast (and in) five months in a row climb up to be the best in the world. That’s the truth. She was average-good. She was good. Just in five months to become so much sharper, so much perfect . . . "
That, too, is part of the American Dream. We can come from nowhere, we can surprise the world at times with our greatness and our potential, just as Douglas did. Hard work matters. Pulling oneself up by the bootstraps and tapping into a talent few others recognize reflects the very spirit of who we are and want to be as a country. That part of us is still alive and well.
“You have to believe yourself,” Douglas said. “Never doubt yourself. You have to go out there and dominate. You have to go out there and be a beast.”
She dominated. She did. She was graceful and poised, she took the pressure so many thought would finally cast her aside and flicked it away as if it were a speck of dust.
Then she came out and she beamed, and she was a kid and a champion and once, and it was hard not smile and shake your head and feel a protective pride in this young, young champion.
For once — thank goodness, for once — what defined us for a day wasn’t a Red State thing or a Blue State thing. This was just a red, white and blue thing.
Gabby Douglas, a 16-year-old black girl who is also officially and surely America’s sweetheart, a champion like none we ever had, beamed, her gold medal huge around her tiny frame. As she spoke, she sounded every bit like someone speaking on behalf of our better side:
“I say keep fighting,” she said. “Whether you’re struggling . . . I say push it. It all pays off. And just keep fighting. And never, never give up. Only believe. Just believe in yourself.”
You can follow Bill Reiter on Twitter or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.