How To Soar Like Olympic Medalist Gabby Douglas

AP Photo/Julie Jacobson

U.S. gymnast Gabby Douglas performs on the balance beam during the artistic gymnastics women's team final at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.

In honor of Black History Month, espnW is running a weekly personal essay about the influence of black female athletes. 

I wonder how the sky swelled when Gabrielle Douglas first leapt toward the sunlight of her promise. As a writer, it's an image in my mind I revisit in a growing collection of pictures of her, braced against the air and the beauty of her graceful brown skin.

An inspiring champion, Gabby Douglas is high above our usual range of sight. Yet she is grounded by her discipline and faith. Preparing herself in arenas of thousands of admirers, she is focused. Hoisting herself above the uneven bars, her leotard glitters like a living flag of hope. Clouds of chalk halo her firm hands. With her head thrown back, her open eyes insist that we too must look up at the limitless light and share her miraculous journey.

Four years ago, Gabby drew me back to gymnastics with her dazzling smile. It was that simple. The radiance she gives the world is like a jewel. Whether she flew or fell, it was evident that Gabby had learned to carry herself as a champion, and as a loved daughter and sister.

In the early 1990s, Dominique "Awesome" Dawes captured my respect, as I was moving toward my own passion. Watching her, I was riveted, reassured that somewhere in the world there were girls, like me, finding ways to exercise their dreams.

Prior to Dawes, I had often perceived gymnastics as a space for girls who did not look like me or resemble the girls I knew. This self-consciousness, or otherness, was common when I was a volleyball player in grade school. Before matches, I leaned my cheek against my mother's knees as she braided my hair into two thick plaits, which she tied with ribbon. After games, I crossed the floor slapping palms as I looked for other black girls on the opposite teams. Thick cornrows unraveled into puffy crowns. Press'n'curls were again defeated. We nodded at each other, our faces shining. Our sweat was good and important, whether we lost or won.

Rachel Eliza Griffiths

Dawes, and later Douglas, had provided me with exquisite, visual proof that black girls could grow their own wings. Back then, I had already discovered that the only thing that came close to giving me that flying sensation was writing and reading. At school, I gripped the bald, rare paragraphs in my textbooks that highlighted the achievements and struggles of people who looked like me. Those black and brown people had possessed a deep faith in justice, love, athleticism, music, science and art. Black people had been dreaming of me, on my behalf, before I had ever been born.

During Gabby's Olympic rise, I went to the beauty salon on a sunny day in Brooklyn. Some of the talk turned toxic. Instead of her gold medals and her record-breaking numbers, there were those of us who focused, nearly exclusively, on the condition of a 16-year-old girl's hair.

Despite my formidable shyness, a determination shone in my voice. Cutting through the hum of hair-dryer helmets, I said, "She is 16 years old and she is beautiful. A champion." Exhaling through the last word so that it was long and final, I settled back under my dryer as though the conversation, to which I had not been invited to give my opinion, was now finished.

Perhaps there was something in Gabby's shine that had made the older women fearful. It was likely these elders had witnessed decades of black and brown women struggle against the world's opinion of them and their bodies.

But Gabby was, as far as I was concerned, my sister.

Following Gabby's story, her commitment to her craft remains astonishing. In her early years, she had left her home and family in Virginia Beach to grow her extraordinary gift. Years ago in New York, as I struggled to give myself the authority and permission I needed to make my own leap, loneliness and reading were my coaches. Distance from the comfortable world I knew would ultimately strengthen me with clarity. Many writers understand that our ambivalent distance is a tool we need so that we can focus on the stories we know by heart.

In volleyball I remember the power with which I had learned to shout "Mine" as I dove for the ball. I had to keep my eyes open. I had to prepare my hit for the next girl. Every time Gabrielle Douglas smiles into a camera I breathe through these words gratefully: Ours. Ours. Ours.

Rachel Eliza Griffiths is a poet and photographer. Her literary and visual work has been published in journals, magazines, anthologies and periodicals including Callaloo, Poets & Writers, The New York Times, American Poetry Review and American Poet. She teaches creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College.

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