AL HAMNIK: Olympic gymnast Gabrielle Douglas doing it her way

2012-10-15T23:45:00Z 2012-10-17T21:01:15Z AL HAMNIK: Olympic gymnast Gabrielle Douglas doing it her wayAl Hamnik Times Columnist
October 15, 2012 11:45 pm  • 

GARY | When the world caught its first glimpse of Olympic gymnast Gabrielle Douglas at the London Games, I wonder how many were thinking "stage mom."

You know the type.

Their adorable young daughters, dressed like professional models with thick makeup, and barely preschool age, are entered in beauty pageants around the country as moms bite their nails and agonize over the judges' voting.

Reality TV loves this garbage, this exploitation.

During the Olympics, we got a glimpse of Gabrielle Douglas' life. She began her gymnastics career at age 6 and eventually left her family in Virginia Beach at 14 to study two years in Iowa under renowned coach Liang Chow.

After becoming the first African American woman to win individual all-around gold — and the first U.S. gymnast to also win team gold in the same Games — many skeptics figured she would become someone's cash cow through the next Olympics.

I mean, she has it all: Personality, hypnotic smile, humility and a genuineness PR firms sell their souls for.

Thankfully, there was no "stage mom" drama regarding Gabby Douglas.

Truth be told, she fell in love with the sport and her mother Natalie, a single parent with four children, somehow managed to make her youngest daughter's dream come true.

"She didn't put any kind of pressure on me," Gabby said. "The most she said was, 'Go out there, have fun and just enjoy it. When you have fun, you perform and when you perform, you glow and you can just see your personality.'

"It's so much fun to perform for the crowd. I have such a good feeling inside of me."

That's all Gary native Natalie Hawkins, who has more than 120 relatives in the region, ever desired for Gabby.

"I actually didn't even want to put her in gymnastics," Natalie said. "She was amazing as a little girl. She was 3 years old and doing perfect cartwheels. My oldest daughter Ariel had broken her wrist in two places doing back handsprings, and she was a gymnast."

After much prodding by Ariel and nonstop begging by Gabby, she began taking lessons at age 6.

An elite gymnast by 14, Gabby then spent two years in Iowa training with Chow, who arranged for her to stay with a host family because Gabby couldn't afford lodging.

"She told me she needed a coach who could help her get the skills she needed and push it to the limit," Natalie said of the move to farm country.

"In the end, I had to trust that she knew what she was talking about. It wasn't like she was doing it as recreation anymore. Her life was vested in this sport."

The city of Gary held a "Welcome Home" party for Gabby at the Genesis Convention Center on Monday, where more than 500 people of all ages attended a tribute dinner held by Gary Chamber of Commerce. Another 800 filed into the arena to watch her and Natalie interviewed afterward on a taping of "The Michael Essany Show."

These last few months  have been long for Douglas, who's been swept up in a media blitz since leaving London. She's currently halfway through a 40-city tour with the Kellogg's Tour of Gymnastics Champions, which stopped at the United Center this weekend. While in Chicago she's made time for appearances in Merrillville and Gary.

"It's been quite a ride since the Olympics and I'm having a blast," she said.

The feeling is mutual with the huge crowds she's drawn.

This column solely represents the writer's opinion. Reach him at

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