What Gabby Douglas's Fall From Grace Taught Me About Support

A few years ago, Gabby Douglas was the golden child of gymnastics. As the shining member of America’s “Fierce Five” women’s Olympics gymnastics team, the talented athlete quickly became the face of the sport. From soaring high on the uneven bars to dominating the always nerve wrecking balance beam, she made history as the first African American woman to win individual all-around Olympic gold. 

Fast forward four years to these current Olympic games, and it seems Gabby has taken a serious fall from grace. Whether it’s the hand over heart controversy at her medal ceremony, mentions of her alleged lack of support for teammates Simone Biles and Aly Raisman in the all-around finals, or the continued insults about her hair that we’ve heard far too many times, she’s faced harsh criticism throughout her entire stay in Rio.

Plus, with the gymnastic federation’s two-per-country rule, only the top two athletes from each country qualify for the individual all-around finals. Despite placing third overall in the semi-finals, right after Simone and Aly, Gabby’s trip to defend her title was cut short. Then after making a critical mistake on the uneven bars, she placed seventh in that event final, ending her Olympic run, and most likely her professional gymnastics career, on a very low note.

Gymnasts, in general, are very interesting. They go unseen and unknown by the general public for years and years, putting in unbelievable hours at the gym for one shot to make it to the Olympic stage. That’s why someone like Simone Biles was dubbed "the best gymnast of all time" well before she won her first Olympic medal, even though you may have only learned about her this past year. Once gymnasts have gotten too old, get injured, or can no longer bear the amount of brutal stress put on their bodies, they retire from the professional sport. To put it simply, many gymnasts never see the Olympics twice.

At a mere 20 years old, Gabby is at the retirement stage, a unique contrast from Simone Biles who is an Olympic newbie at 19. It’s a strange fact that causes a lot of people to wonder, “what happened to Gabby Douglas?” But the answer is simple -- she is still Gabby. She is still elite. She is still one of the best gymnasts in the world, as proven by her third place individual all-around semi-finals standing. 

But no matter how talented and successful of a gymnast she may be, the media is working overtime to paint a dreary narrative of disappointment to replace the history breaking accomplishments of Gabby’s career. Instead of being judged for her athletic performance, she’s been judged for her emotional reactions, for not smiling enough, for not being the way the world wants her to be. Instead of being congratulated on her reign as champion, a feat only a select few people can claim, she’s been ridiculed as a failure.

It’s a feeling I’m sure many of us can relate to. During the highlights of my life, I felt like Gabby in 2012, on an untouchable high of success. But as life goes on, I made mistakes and walked down non-traditional paths. I didn’t become the person that many wanted me to be. I felt that same dreary cloud of judgement and disappointment from many of my family and friends who once supported everything I did. Just like Gabby, I know how heavy the weight of expectation can be and how cold rejection can feel, especially from those who once loved you the most. 

But I found pockets of support in new ways, friends I never thought I’d meet and support groups I never knew I needed. Fortunately, I see the same happening for Gabby. With the rise in popularity of a new hashtag #Love4GabbyUSA, we’re all pouring out love and support for the superstar that she needs and deserves. Celebrities and public figures are coming to her defense, and her fans have her back now more than ever.

So, whether you’re up high or down low, there will always be naysayers, doubters, and critics. There will be those who judge you for not turning out the way they wanted or expected. It’s important to surround yourself with people who have your back, genuinely want to see you succeed, and will never leave your side, no matter how difficult the circumstance.

It’s not about who’s there for you when you’re up. It’s about who stands by you when it matters the most.