Photo Credit: Kelly Wallace/iVillage
Her daughter may be called the “flying squirrel” for the way she flies across the uneven bars and for stretch and height she achieves on her leaps. Her mom should be called “Ms. Grounded” for seeming to have it all in perspective, even as her daughter, 16-year-old Gabrielle “Gabby” Douglas, is poised to become a household name. She is one of only two American women who will compete for gold in the all-around gymnastics final. She and her teammates will also try to become the first American women’s team since 1996 to win team gold on Tuesday.
“I told her we’re gonna celebrate when you win a gold medal like you won a gold medal,” Natalie Hawkins, a single mom of four who is divorced from Gabby's dad, told me during an interview at the P&G Family Home, a home for Team USA athletes and families during the Games. “You win a silver medal, we’re gonna celebrate like you won a gold. You get a bronze, again, we’re celebrating like you took home the gold. You don’t get a medal at all, we’re going to be there partying like there’s no tomorrow … We’re going to have a party no matter what you do. Forever more you’re an Olympian and that says it all.”
Hawkins credits her daughter, Arielle, one of Gabby’s three older siblings, with convincing her to put her daughter in gymnastics at age seven (she was doing perfect cartwheels at age three) and she credits her kids with convincing her to make what she calls “one of the hardest decisions” of her life -- sending Gabby, her youngest child, to West Des Moines, Iowa at the age of 14 to train with Liang Chow, the man who coached Shawn Johnson to a silver in the Olympic all-around and an Olympic gold on the balance beam. Gabby had been pushing since the 2008 Games, when she was 12, to work with a coach of Chow’s caliber.
“My oldest daughters came in with a list, here are the reasons why,” Hawkins said, referring to a list of pros on why Gabby should go to Iowa. “On the con list, there was only one thing, we would miss her. And so I said, I can either stand in the way of her dream or I can get on board and we can give this thing everything we’ve got.”
Shawn Johnson, who considers Gabby almost like a little sister (they trained together while Shawn was trying to mount a comeback), knows how hard it was for Gabby to be away from her family to pursue her Olympic dreams. “I saw her jump from a couple of families trying to find the right fit in Des Moines and saw her go through a hard time wanting to go home,” Johnson told me during an interview. “I’ve seen her transform into this Olympian.”
Hawkins says she worked a lot of shifts at her job as a recovery specialist for a bank and did whatever she could to save money to help pay for her daughter’s dream. She says while watching Gabby Sunday, the day her daughter qualified for the Olympic all-around final, she was so moved thinking about how all of the hard work and sacrifice had paid off. “When I look at her out there, I think about that, I don’t think about all the good times, all the meets that she’s won,” Hawkins said. “I think about … just some of the negative things that have happened as far as the injuries, because that’s never fun and just the hurdles and the setbacks that she’s experienced.”
“The best thing about sitting in the stands … is knowing that she is not going to have any what ifs. That’s wiped out, forever more, she’s going to wake up every day knowing she gave it her all.” She will forever have Olympian next to her name!
Watch this riveting video of Gabby, part of the P&G Raising an Olympian docu-series and try not to cry!
Check out more of my in-depth interview with Gabby’s mom below:
How She Copes During Meets: “I have to remind myself to breathe because a lot of times I forget … It’s so funny, I am literally holding my breath and my heart starts beating faster because I am not breathing so now I sit in a meet and I have this pressure point … that’s my cue that I need to breathe.”
Toughest Event to Watch: “Beam is the hardest event for me to get through, so I try to breathe through beam because … there’s so much on the line at this point and you just think about it … You trained 12 years or so for one moment. You don’t make it, you have to wait another four years and in gymnastics that’s an eternity.”
On Making History: No African American has won an Olympic gold or silver in the all-around or individual event competition. Dominique Dawes, part of the 1996 gold medal winning team, won a bronze in the individual event competition. “It would potentially be history in the making, how could I deny her that,” said Hawkins. “I couldn’t and Gabrielle’s all about giving back and what can I do to make someone else’s life better … She would tell me it would be amazing if I could do this and I thought you know it would, because it might inspire a nation.”
On the Financial Sacrifice: “I worked a lot of shifts at work. I had a job that paid really big bonuses… We sacrificed a lot, we didn’t have some of the best clothing, I shopped discount, I did a lot of coupon shopping,” said Hawkins. “I just did whatever I could to save money. If it wasn’t a bargain I was not going to purchase it… It wasn’t easy, there were a lot of sleepless nights. I was trying to figure out how I was going I was going to make ends meet.”
It Takes a Village: Hawkins considers Missy and Travis Parton, the parents of four girls who are hosting and raising Gabby in Des Moines, part of her family. “We’re all family, we celebrate as family… It really is just about a community of people coming together to try and make something happen and to make a dream come true and it wound up making a whole bunch of dreams come true.”
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The cost of Kelly Wallace’s travel to London and accommodation was paid by Procter & Gamble.