Gabby Douglas discusses Olympic distinction, disappointments in UMSL address

Gabby Douglas, Kim Hudson

Three-time Olympic gold medalist Gabby Douglas (at left) reacts to a question from Fox 2 morning news anchor Kim Hudson Tuesday at the Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center. Hudson, BA 2000, moderated a Q&A with Douglas, who was on campus for the Office of Student Involvement’s Speaker Series. (Photos courtesy of Tyler Warren/Raster Designs)

Gabby Douglas reached a point in her Olympic gymnastics career when she felt like she had lost a part of her individual identity.

She tried to adopt the fiery persona of the “Fierce Five,” the U.S. women’s team that won gold at the 2012 London Olympics, but it didn’t suit her quite right. Douglas was the breakout star among the team, but the bold personality she delivered in 2012 – and again during her 2016 Olympic run – wasn’t rooted in reality.

“When I look at the 2012 video and the 2016 video, I was trying so hard to be this new Gabby, this sassy, grown-up Gabby,” Douglas said to an intimate crowd Tuesday at the Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center. “Honestly, I could have just been who I am – joyful and very charismatic. I had lost my joy, and that was my power, that was my strength.”

She shared this story and many others with University of Missouri–St. Louis students, local families and other adoring fans as part of the Office of Student Involvement’s Speaker Series. The annual event, which began during the 2011-12 academic year, has brought in 20 other well-known speakers, including George Takei, Laverne Cox and Bill Nye.

Gabby Douglas crowd

A crowd of UMSL students and community members gathered for Gabby Douglas’ speaker series address.

Douglas outlined her Olympic rise to the crowd through a Q&A moderated by Fox 2 morning news anchor and UMSL alumna Kim Hudson. The local journalist opened the evening by dubbing Douglas as “the most loved gymnast of this decade” and introducing her athletic achievements, which include three Olympic golds and three World Artistic Gymnastics Championship medals.

“She burst into the hearts and minds of mainstream America in 2012 during the London Olympic Games, when she became the first African-American woman to win an Olympic gold medal in the all-around,” Hudson began before pausing for cheers from the crowd. “She is one of the most influential female athletes in the world and is continuously at the center of pop culture.”

From there, Hudson directed the evening’s conversation around Douglas’ gymnastic origins, the pinnacle points of her career as well as the lows that nearly influenced Douglas to leave the sport prematurely.

“I’ve learned a lot throughout my gymnastics career,” Douglas said. “One thing I’ve learned is that we always want to gain something. But if you focus so hard on gaining something you actually lose something. You lose the passion that you were given and the joy. I had lost the joy and passion for gymnastics. I was trying so hard to stay on top but dropped to the bottom.”

Just before the 2012 Olympic Games, at age 15, Douglas doubted her abilities and nearly left the sport before hitting the world stage. She had even typed a text to her mother outlining her intention to quit, as she was unable to muster the courage to say it out loud.

Douglas said it was her mom’s adverse reaction, which nearly caused a car accident, that made Douglas continue.

After hearing the story, Hudson detoured for a moment to relate the mother-daughter dynamic to her own life. Her mother, Stephanie, graduated from UMSL the same year Hudson started at the university. Hudson said fear of disappointing Stephanie pushed her to get past some self-doubt that troubled her undergraduate years.

“Was the thing that helped you get past that fear the same thing that helped me get past my fear? My mom,” Hudson said. “There is one thing I am more scared of than failure, and that’s my mom.”

Douglas agreed that her family helped her find the courage to continue. But while she had a strong support system, Douglas said she had several confidence issues that she attempted to navigate alone.

“I don’t really share this a lot – you guys are some of the first – but for so long, we have been trained to keep our feelings inside and stay silent,” Douglas said. “That carried on with people attacking me. With different things, even in life, my mom would ask, ‘Why didn’t you say anything?’ It’s kind of been ingrained in us to stay silent. After 2016, I honestly had a hard time grasping with everything, with that fact that I didn’t qualify for certain competitions, and social media was gunning for me. It was hard. I’m not going to lie.”

Today, she’s still trying to navigate those internal challenges while having a public platform. Exploring talents outside of gymnastics eased her transition. Since her first Olympic appearance, Douglas has published an autobiography, launched a lip gloss line, released a Barbie doll and acted in the Hallmark Channel movie “Love, Of Course.”

Douglas told Tuesday’s crowd that she hopes to continue acting and plans to take time to consider the rest of her varied interests.

“I’m still working on myself,” Douglas said. “I spent so long in the gym – 14 years in the gym. So when I come out of the gym, everyone is like, ‘What do you want to do next? Who are you? What are you going to be?’ I don’t know yet. I’m still figuring out my purpose here on this planet. I’m taking one step every day. I always thought, ‘This is who I am. I need medals to define who I am.’ But you don’t need medals or accolades to define who are. They are great bonuses but don’t define your character.”

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