Gabby Douglas ended her bid to return to the Olympics. She’s still a champion in my eyes | CNN (2024)

Gabby Douglas ended her bid to return to the Olympics. She’s still a champion in my eyes | CNN (1)

Gabby Douglas competing in the uneven bars during the Core Hydration Classic at XL Center in Hartford, Connecticut, on May 18, 2024. Injury has ended her dream to take part in her third Olympic Games later this year in Paris.

Editor’s Note: Onnie Willis Rogers is a former collegiate gymnastics champion at UCLA and a professor of psychology at Northwestern University whose research focuses on human development, diversity and equity and education. The opinions expressed here are her own. Read more opinion at CNN.

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I was at the London Olympics in 2012 when Gabby Douglas won the individual all-around gold medal in gymnastics at the tender age of 16. Those of us who have competed in the sport had long been following her career, but she became an overnight megastar for many casual observers, including much of the American public.

Gabby Douglas ended her bid to return to the Olympics. She’s still a champion in my eyes | CNN (2)

Onnie Willis Rogers

Having been an elite and collegiate gymnast myself, in an era when I was one of very few Black gymnasts in any competition arena I entered, it was thrilling to see a young Black girl’s joy and excellence in dominating the sport. Then, I watched in shock and disappointment as some critics tried to diminish her radiant performance and unprecedented success with their racist and sexist comments and unfair judgment about her appearance.

It was the same kind of hurtful commentary that Douglas had to endure while coming up in the sport. Douglas has spoken publicly about the impact of the media vitriol and her decision to step away from the public eye to attend to her mental health.

Her painful backstory was a good part of the reason why I, like many other gymnastics fans, pulled hard for Gabby Douglas when she announced her return to elite gymnastics.

I joyfully consumed the numerous media posts and news clips showcasing the caliber and execution of her skills and the progress she was making in recent training and competitions. It was inspiring — unbelievable, even.

Simone Biles won a ninth all-around national title at the US Gymnastics Championships on Sunday, dominating the event, ahead of next month’s Olympics in Paris. The national championships are the final event for US gymnasts before the Olympic Trials later this month. The women’s team to compete at Paris 2024 will be chosen after the Olympic Trials, with the winner of the all-around competition at the Trials automatically making the team.

Douglas had hoped to compete this weekend as well. Had she pulled off her comeback, it would have been a triumph unequaled in our sport. So, for gymnastics fans — and especially for Gabby fans — news of her withdrawal from the championships and an end to her bid for a third Olympic Games, was heartbreaking even if it was, perhaps, not terribly surprising.

Gabby Douglas ended her bid to return to the Olympics. She’s still a champion in my eyes | CNN (3)

Gabby Douglas and the other old gold medal winning members of the US women's gymnastics team at the 2016 Rio Olympics — Alexandra Raisman, Madison Kocian, Lauren Hernandez and Simone Biles.

Gymnastics is a remarkably difficult and demanding sport — physically and mentally. The unique combination of strength and power, flexibility and endurance, grace and speed required to excel on four vastly different apparatuses are a product of repetition, consistency and precision. But let me be clear: Make the US Olympic team or not, Douglas’ bid to return to elite status was an unparalleled quest, one that I will always unapologetically celebrate as a success unto itself.

Douglas is a gymnastics legend. A three-time Olympic gold medalist and the first Black woman to win the individual all-around title at the Olympic games in London, she returned to compete at the 2016 games in Rio de Janeiro, making her the first Olympic all-around gold medalist to successfully return to the Olympics. While there, she earned yet another gold medal, cementing her superstar status.

But now 28, Douglas has been away from gymnastics for eight years — a lifetime in a sport that changes quickly and dramatically. Had she made the team, Douglas would have been the oldest American woman to compete in gymnastics at the Olympics since 1952.

In a historic first, three Black women — Shilese Jones, Konnor McClain and Jordan Chiles — earned top honors in the all-around competition at the US Gymnastics Championships last August. Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images Related article Opinion: Gymnastics teams look nothing like they used to. And this is the biggest change of all

Unlike some other sports where the level of play or pace shifts but the rules and skills remain unchanged, in gymnastics, the skills, rules and points intensify every year and are reset systematically, via a “Code of Points” that is recalibrated every Olympic cycle. Some skills that were rated with top difficulty in 2012 earn few, if any, bonus points in 2024. In fact, in today’s Code of Points, Douglas’ Olympic-winning 2012 routine is worth many fewer points than what it was awarded back then.

There are also the unavoidable realities of physical changes as we grow older. It’s not just about conditioning or getting back into shape. As gymnasts age, they often need to totally relearn the skills of their sport — something that can be especially hard to do after a long layoff.

Kyla Ross is an excellent example of this. Ross, a teammate of Douglas’ in London, was the youngest member of the “Fierce Five” that won team gold at that Olympics. Ross had planned to return four years later but found that the physical changes her body had undergone between the ages of 15 and 19 made a comeback at the elite level too difficult. Puberty had led to a physical transformation — compounded by the additional challenge of having taken substantial time away.

Attempting a return to competition means figuring out how equipment settings should be readjusted, relearning old skills and learning new ones to accommodate a changed body. In the end, Ross abandoned her bid for an Olympic comeback. Now, Douglas has ended her Olympic quest as well, citing an ankle injury she sustained while training.

Ross and Douglas are not unique in their quests to repeat or return to athletic dominance. Many athletes pursue this path, and in fact, multiple gymnasts are taking part in nationals who are veterans of the Olympic stage.

Part of this quest to repeat may be related to the athlete’s sense of identity. For an endeavor as demanding as gymnastics, one’s sense of self is often deeply tied to the sport and transitioning away from it can be accompanied by feelings of deep loss. This is not unique to gymnastics per se; many professional and elite athletes struggle to find and redefine themselves after retirement and often make attempts to return to their elite status.

No doubt, the kind of people who push themselves to the pinnacle of their sport, in the first place, crave challenge and enjoy pushing themselves to the limit in ways that many of us cannot quite grasp, including comeback attempts that may seem quixotic to non-athletes.

For gymnastics however, especially in the current season where we have multiple returning Olympians on the scene, I think there’s another element driving the pull to return and repeat: the desire to end well on their own terms.

One magazine profile cast a critical eye toward at Bela Karolyi, a Romanian emigre whose gym in Texas who trained some of America’s top gymnastics talent, including Douglas.

Gabby Douglas ended her bid to return to the Olympics. She’s still a champion in my eyes | CNN (5)

Douglas on the balance beam London 2012 Olympics, where she won the all-around gold.

While some of his gymnasts credit him for their Olympic success, Karolyi was described by fellow coaches as “a tyrannical Svengali figure who calculatingly tries to wear down his top girls until only the two or three best ones are left standing” according to the article, which added that “his golden touch is really a savage one, that for every successful gymnast he develops, he drives off half a dozen more.”

It was at the facility run by Karolyi and his wife and coaching partner Martha that the sexual abuse of multiple gymnasts was perpetrated by Dr. Larry Nassar under the guise of medical treatment. Nassar has since been convicted and imprisoned for his crimes. The Karolyis say they were not aware that the abuse was going on, and Texas prosecutors said there was “no corroborated evidence of any criminal conduct” by them.

The toxic culture of USA Gymnastics stole the love and joy of the sport from generations of gymnasts who were forced to choose between their gold medal dreams and their mental and emotional well-being. And some athletes from this generation are here to reclaim the sport for themselves and the next generation.

Dominique Moceanu, the diminutive, dynamic athlete on the “Magnificent Seven” 1996 Olympic gymnastics team, paralleled Douglas’ journey in some ways. In the public eye, Moceanu was the darling of the Karolyis, but behind the scenes she has recounted the trauma of being subject to their denigration and under their manipulative control.

EVERETT, WA - APRIL 09: Simone Biles of the United States competes in the floor exercise during Day 2 of the 2016 Pacific Rim Gymnastics Championships at Xfinity Arena on April 9, 2016 in Everett, Washington. Biles won the all-around competition. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images) Ezra Shaw/Getty Images Related article Opinion: Simone Biles has changed the narrative about who gets to be a champion

In her memoir, “Off Balance,” Moceanu recounts stepping away from the sport and finding her own identity — and reclaiming her love for gymnastics on her own terms. Moceanu then made a bid for the 2000 Olympics. Though ultimately unsuccessful, she writes about the empowering and healing journey of proving to herself and others that she could perform at the elite level on her own terms, trusting herself and her adult body.

I suspect that many gymnasts returning to the elite stage from college and retirement are not just reclaiming identities forged during years of intensive commitment to a beloved sport, but also because they are repairing identities and healing their younger selves — the joyful, hopeful young gymnasts who loved to fly high and dream big.

No longer forced to choose between loving themselves and loving their sport, this generation of athletes is showing us how they nourish their full selves through their gymnastics. I won’t go as far to say that the same applies to Douglas. But it was more than clear that by the end of her second Olympics, after a few disappointing performances at the games, Gabby seemed demoralized and dejected.

Still, Douglas soldiered on through her final interview as an Olympian and didn’t make any excuses for failing to meet her own lofty standards.

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“For me, when you go through a lot, and you have so many difficulties, and people [are] against you sometimes; it kind of just determines your character,” she said during a 2016 press conference in Rio. “Are you going to stand, or are you going to crumble? In the face of everything, still stand,” she said.

It goes without saying that during this week’s gymnastics championships, I will be cheering for Simone Biles — who has an amazing comeback story of her own — as she blazes a path to her next Olympics in Paris this summer.

And I’ll be rooting for her amazing cohort of teammates — many of them gymnasts of color — as the sport finally lives up to its potential, tapping the talents of a diverse cadre of athletes. In my view, it’s no coincidence that US gymnastics began to experience some of its greatest successes only after it began to become more diverse.

But I will always have a special place in my heart for Douglas, a courageous, talented gymnast who won’t be in Parisbut who has shown us all what it means to have a seemingly insurmountable goal, and to go for it boldly all the same.

Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to reflect results from Sunday’s gymnastic competition.

Gabby Douglas ended her bid to return to the Olympics. She’s still a champion in my eyes | CNN (2024)
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