US gymnast Gabby Douglas will win your heart in London.
For the first time since capping her team gold medal with an all-around gold of her own, Douglas emerged Monday into a whole new world: One reshaped by fame, burdened by its exhausting relentlessness and capped with the first glimpse of how celebrity inevitably melds the personal with the public.
Tired and worn down – so much so her answers often drifted afterward and a USA Gymnastics official limited questions because of the 16-year-old’s obvious fatigue – Douglas took to the uneven bars hoping to add another medal to her trophy case.
She finished dead last. Normally fast and beautiful and seamless, even to the untrained eye, she was clunky and off. She missed a key part of her routine, a misstep clear to even those lacking in expertise and significant enough to lower her score to a 14.9.
In almost an afterthought – that, too, is the power of the famous, its ability to reshape almost everything, particularly our perceptions – Aliya Mustafina of Russia won the gold with a score of 16.133, He Kexin of China was second with a 15.933 and Great Britain’s favorite Beth Tweddle won the bronze with a score of 15.916.
But it was Douglas’ fame that pushed the storylines forward, as they have since she was crowned America’s sweetheart last week. Already, ridiculous comments about her hair have sparked stories and talk. Now on Monday, having just struggled at an event she’s usually able to execute nearly flawlessly, she was asked about reports that her mother is facing bankruptcy.
This was fame, the less stellar side of it, bearing down with all its weight.
To Douglas’ credit she handled it with grace, aplomb and dignity. And she’s just 16.
“That’s my mom’s side of (things),” she said. “It was really hard for us because my dad had left us. So he wasn’t really in the picture any more so my mom had to front all these bills. And my dad didn’t really pay the child support. It was definitely hard on her part and she had to take care of me and the rest of my siblings. So if you have any more questions feel free to contact her. That’s all I have.”
She said it nicely, and with strength, and it’s likely she was prepped to expect this question. And let me add: People are going to want to get angry that the question was asked, to holler down the person who asked it, to blame the media and cry foul.
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But this is in fact the complicated world of gymnastics, one every one of you reading this story or watching at home contributes to, myself included: It’s teenagers fighting for gold medals under almost debilitating pressure that we make one of the hallmarks of these games. It’s 16-year-olds, including Douglas, having already turned professional. As I type this, somewhere someone is almost certainly lining up sponsorships for her. This is her job.
This is fame: The money and joy, the public spotlight and the lessons about learning to live in it, the good and the difficult.
It’s also utterly exhausting.
“Toward the end of the Olympics you get physically tired and drained and no matter how much rest you have your body is just so tired,” Douglas said. “Because you train every day and you still compete every other day and you go back in the gym and it’s hard and your
Because you train every day. And have a thousand people wanting to talk to you, wanting something from you. And you have reports about your mother’s bankruptcy and questions to be answered about your hair and deals to be signed and a new world to learn to maneuver and a name you’ve carried your whole life that now does more than you yet understand.
Gabby Douglas is an amazing athlete who has earned this. She is also a very nice young person, a kid really, who took the toughest question of her life Monday and handled it with great calm and skill. And candor.
Saying that her father did not pay alimony is news, really, and it’s also a nod to the mother who despite these struggles very much helped her daughter ascend those two podiums and step off into a more difficult but better life.
Don’t be angry Gabby Douglas had to answer such a question. It’s part of her job. But be happy she answered so well, and let’s all hope she can navigate the thing so many Americans chase and so many who catch it struggle with. Fame.
It’s hers now, its struggles as much as its blessings.