I’m not a Simone Biles; I’m a Gabby Douglas.
This may seem like a pretty inane statement to make because I’m nothing like either of them — I have never nor will ever be an elite, gold-medal winning gymnast (or any sort of gymnast or gold medalist for that matter). I’m not remotely athletic and I have no concept of the work, talent and perseverance it must take to become an Olympic anything. But I love watching the sport and like many others, I eagerly look forward to the Women’s Artistic Gymnastics at the Olympics because it’s the closest thing to witnessing magic.
I remember watching the US Olympic qualifications in 2012 and being awestruck because I’ve never seen a girl that looks like me do the things she could do. Even though we were miles apart both literally and figuratively, something about her spirit spoke to mine. Gabby wasn’t perfect but she was a fighter. You held her breath through her routines, with all your fingers and toes crossed, praying that she does what you know she’s capable of. As was oft pointed out, she wasn’t the most beautiful or graceful gymnast we’ve ever seen and yet, she still managed to pull out the win, which to me is testament to the fire and grit within her.
Simone Biles is superhuman — she was clearly born to do this and if she can do any wrong, I don’t think any of us have seen it yet (even with a “fall” on the beam she still copped a bronze). As Olympic gold medalist Nastia Liukin said, she is basically competing by herself at this stage.
I admire her and acknowledge that she is one of the most gifted athletes of our time but she isn’t for me what Gabby Douglas is. Gabby is certainly top class and has an individual all-round gold medal to prove it but she didn’t float through it in the way Simone did. She muscled her way through with equal parts talent and sheer determination. There is beauty in the struggle and I connect with Gabby’s power of will and it resonates with me in a way Simone’s flawlessness simply can’t because that’s never been my experience.
That’s why Rio 2016 was so tough for me. It’s clear that 2016 Gabby Douglas is not the same as 2012 Gabby Douglas but who could expect that of her? Aren’t we all different people than we were four years ago? Nevertheless, she made the team and performed admirably, just missing out on her chance to defend her title in the all-round final; leaving Rio with the Team gold. But her time in Rio was like watching an episode of Project Runway — one day she was in, the next she was out.
The sweetheart of the London Olympics very quickly became this year’s villain with a list of offenses which seem to increase by the day, including (but not limited to) a lack of patriotism, “saltiness” towards her teammates, ridiculous allegations of skin bleaching and complaints about her “edges”. This girl has taken quite the beating and it has understandably taken a toll on her.
And the fact of the matter is she doesn’t deserve it. I think as the social media generation; our criticisms are harsher and memories shorter. We are quick to scrutinize but slow to empathize and sometimes we need to check ourselves. None of us know what any of these athletes go through to be able to display their gifts on the world’s largest stage and I’m sure it’s an extremely emotional journey; a lot of which is now televised and then frozen in time, mostly in the form of memes, forever. We have to remember is that just like an Instagram post or Facebook status, it is only a very small snapshot of their lives and journey.
So Gabby, I see you. I haven’t forgotten you or the feats you’ve accomplished and especially not the way you made me feel. Rio probably didn’t go the way you would have liked but at times like this I frequently revert to one of my mom’s favorite sayings — this too shall pass.