The Olympic gymnast on her dramatic return and her hidden injury
It's a madhouse inside Buckeye Gymnastics at noon on Tuesday, July 12. Like most other days, the lobby is filled with children who have just finished with morning practice or camp, while coaches and staff herd them toward the exit. But there are more parents lingering now, their focus on the older gymnasts training out on the floor. They whisper to each other about one in particular. The woman of the moment comes bounding out to greet one of the onlookers. "I made it!" Gabby Douglas squeals.
On Sunday, two nights earlier, Douglas was named to the U.S. Olympic women's gymnastics team in dramatic fashion, becoming the first female all-around gold medalist to return to the following Games since Nadia Comaneci of Romania in 1980. It was the penultimate step on her long and winding road from the 2012 Olympics in London to this year's competition in Rio de Janeiro.
(Douglas hugs Team USA alternate Ashton Locklear after Olympic trials; photo by Gregory Bull/AP)
That journey brought her here, to Buckeye Gymnastics in Westerville, where she has trained for the last two years under the direction of coaches Kittia Carpenter and Christian Gallardo. (For a feature story on Douglas and Buckeye, look for the August issue of Columbus Monthly, on newsstands now.) She's in her last week of training at Buckeye before spending 10 days in final preparation at Karolyi Ranch, run by national team coordinator Martha Karolyi. Then she and the rest of Team USA will fly to Rio.
As the lobby clears, Douglas steps off to the side near a small balance beam. She appears relaxed, perhaps even relieved, as she discusses her recent achievement and her last couple years of work.
First let's just start with Sunday night-what was that like? What was going through your head as Martha was telling you that you made the team?
Just knowing that I had made my second Olympic team was just so crazy, and I was just very emotional. The experience and the process so far has been awesome. … It was a "wow" moment.
Why were you so emotional? What did that moment mean for you?
All the girls were crying. You know Martha comes in, she's bawling, and so is Rhonda [Faehn, the senior vice president of USA Gymnastics]. And it's just a tough process, a tough journey, when you know that you made it to the biggest and one of the highest meets there is out there. I mean, it's just something so special.
What has been the most difficult part of that four-year process of attempting to return to the Olympics?
For the most part, nothing's been too extremely difficult. Just coming back into the sport after I'd taken like two years off-it was actually pretty good, and I got into shape really fast. And I just missed gymnastics, so I was like, "Let me do that, let me do that, let me do that," and I had to slow down because I hadn't done it in so long, and you don't want to like pull anything or strain anything the first couple days back. But for the most part, it hasn't been hard. OK, I would have to say the endurance, like getting back into the routine shape, was a little bit challenging, but that's pretty much it.
What about Christian and Kittia do you respond to in terms of your actual training? What do they bring to the table for an athlete like you?
Just a lot of positivity and just a lot of encouraging words because I'm really hard on myself, and when I make a mistake I'm like, "Oh," and I just kind of shut down the rest of the practice. … So they really just tell me to like, "No, just keep fighting and just really stay focused and don't just get hard on yourself."
I saw that right after Olympic trials, your mom revealed that you had a knee injury for the 2015 World Championships.
Yeah, I know that you're thrilled about that. [laughs] Why did you decide not to reveal that at the time it happened?
Yeah, I don't know, just didn't really want to share with anybody, just to kind of keep it under the wraps because that was kind of like our off time-after Worlds we got a little bit of time off-so I was just like, "Why would I want to let people know? I'm just going to heal and recover and come back strong the next year." But at the same time my mom was like, "You know, I kind of want everyone to know that you competed on a fractured knee at Worlds. You got second, so that's pretty awesome."
Do you think that affected any of your training or work leading up to Rio?
No, not really. I was pretty much healed in the first month of 2016, and everything was just all good, but I don't feel like it set me back. Yeah, the break was actually nice just to get back and just kind of do light stuff, and obviously I couldn't do anything because I was on crutches, but I was all good after that.
So what will have to happen in Rio for you to consider the Olympics to be a success?
I think just the process leading up to Rio, I have to be so determined-and I am-and just very, very consistent in training and just to prove to myself and the people that are in my camp and my community that believe in me, just to go out there and show them what I'm capable of doing. I think that's just the number one step for me, and then everything else will happen, and Rio is going to be great. But I think that's what I'm focused on right now is just leading up to Rio because that's so important, the training leading up to the Games.