My Sportsman: Gabby Douglas
Gabby Douglas overcame crushing pressure to win gold in Olympic gymnastics
At 14, she'd fearlessly left home to live with strangers and be pushed to her limit
Did anyone in sports in 2012 so clearly embody perfection after risking so much?
Sports Illustrated will announce its choice for Sportsman of the Year on Dec. 3. Here's one of the nominations for that honor by an SI writer. Please vote for your Inspiring Performer, Photo of The Year, and Moment of The Year on our Facebook page.
In order to win the Olympic gold medal in the women's all-around last summer, gymnast Gabby Douglas merely had to give up ... everything.
Two years before she took our breath away in London, she left behind all the people and things that made her feel safe and secure and loved. She walked away from her home in Virginia Beach, from her mother and three siblings, from her two dogs, Zoe and Chandler, who used to climb into bed with her at night, and from the beach, where she used to ride the waves on her boogie board.
If that seems like a huge sacrifice to you, consider how enormous it must have seemed to Douglas, who was only 14 at the time. She knew her best chance to become more than just a member of the U.S. national team, to become the best in the world, was to pack up and move, alone, to West Des Moines, Iowa, where she would live with strangers. Gabby and her sisters convinced their mother to let her move 1,200 miles away so a demanding coach from China she'd never met could push her to her physical limit daily while trying to transform her into something extraordinary.
If that isn't enough, lay a bit of cultural unfamiliarity over the whole thing, as Douglas, an African-American teenager, was suddenly thrust into a nearly all-white environment. It was a frightening leap of faith.
Think about that. At 14.
But Douglas made the move because that's how much she wanted to win Olympic gold. When her moment finally came in London, the pressure to make those two years of sacrifice -- on top of all the years before them -- pay off could have been too crushing a burden. We have, after all, seen other Olympians crumble under similar weight. A wobble on the balance beam or a fingertip slipping off the uneven bars could have made all that time, all that separation from the people and places that meant so much to her, amount to nothing. Instead, Douglas literally rose to the occasion, with a performance that was summed up by that single, classic photograph of her in profile, airborne above the beam. Her legs are extended in opposite directions, perfectly parallel to the beam, her torso arched, her head thrown back, her arms thrust out as if trying to touch the walls of the arena.
It is perfect form -- grace and power and confidence and style and concentration all wrapped into a 4'-11', 90-pound package. Did anyone in sports in 2012 so clearly embody all of that at once? It is the combination that Douglas might never have found had she not been brave enough to leave her comfort zone at such a young age. Who else chose to risk two years of their childhood quite the way that Douglas did, and then won so big?
In any Olympic year, we hear so many stories of athletes sacrificing for their brief chance at glory that it's easy to take them all for granted, to think of their back stories as nothing more than fodder for another NBC feature set to the tinkling of melancholy piano music.
But those sacrifices are real, and they can be scary. There are only a few athletes who are willing to make them, and fewer still who are tough enough and tenacious enough and talented enough to turn them into gold. Gabby Douglas should be Sportswoman of the Year not just because of what she won, but because of what she was willing to lose.