Thrill of Victory

Can Gabrielle Douglas remain America's sports hero?

My wife is a bit of a sports fan – with an emphasis on “bit.” She’ll watch the occasional Titans or Vanderbilt game with me, and maybe an inning or two of a baseball game every now and then. Most of her excitement for sports centers on her beloved Nebraska Cornhuskers, her alma mater, and we’ll watch them every chance we get. But other than that, she can take sports or leave them – and more often than not, the “leave” side wins out.

But her indifference has not extended to the Olympics. When women’s gymnastics events have aired, I’m not sure she’s missed a minute – and if she did, it wasn’t when Gabrielle Douglas was competing. Much like the rest of America, Douglas earned my wife’s heart the moment she appeared on the TV screen and flashed that winning smile, just as Mary Lou Retton did in 1984.

My wife is not the only one smitten by Douglas. America loves a rags-to-riches story, and Douglas, who did not grow up in a family with a lot of money, is certainly going to be rich – perhaps by as much as $2-4 million a year over the next four years. She has already cashed in a bit with a pending appearance on the front of a Corn Flakes box. I think I speak for most of America when I say this: good for her!

Nothing about what Douglas has done has been easy. Her father was a military man deployed overseas when Douglas was nine, and as Douglas said, he “wasn’t in the picture much” after that. The parents are in the process of a divorce, and Douglas’s mom filed bankruptcy in January.

Douglas’s father wasn’t the only one who left home, either. In October 2010, Douglas departed from her native Virginia Beach to train and live in Iowa with a host family. She became severely homesick and threatened to quit gymnastics, but fortunately did not. The rest is history.

But what’s next for Douglas won’t be easy, either. History has proven that it’s tough for athletes to deal with sudden fame and fortune. Our last Olympic hero, Michael Phelps, didn’t handle that so well at times. We have images in our minds of Phelps standing on a podium with a medal around his neck, but we also unfortunately have a picture of Phelps smoking pot through a bong at a party as well.

And then there’s keeping one’s focus on the right training and media decorum. Teammate Tyler Clary criticized Phelps’ work ethic earlier in the summer, and while Clary drew a lot of heat for his remark, it’s been well-documented that Phelps didn’t train quite as hard for these Olympics as he did the last ones. Phelps also started to earn a bit of a reputation as a “diva” and didn’t seem to enjoy dealing with the media this time as much as he did in 2008.

To Phelps’s defense, a lot of people have tried drugs and haven’t been exposed the way he was. Phelps also suffers from ADHD, and that makes dealing with the media difficult for him. Had I been Phelps and already owned more gold than Fort Knox after 2008, I’m not sure how I’d have found the motivation to stay at the top of my game. And while there are stories of hundreds of athletes who blew every dollar they earned, and some they didn’t, Phelps kept an apartment in Baltimore rather than buying a huge mansion and filling it with expensive things.

But the negative aspect of Phelps’s story is really the point. Phelps still managed to do a lot of things well, but more focus went to the things he didn’t do so well. Fame works that way, just like water that seeps inside a rock through microscopic cracks, and then when it freezes, the inside of the stone is laid bare as it breaks into several pieces.

The adversity that Douglas has overcome to win two gold medals at the tender age of 16, with the grace and humility she has shown while accomplishing those things, is nothing short of incredible. But let’s not forget that she’s only 16. It is difficult enough being a teenage girl from a split family, but the new opportunities available to her will provide distractions, and the fame will invite the media into every corner of her life.

A large number of adults who are two, three, and even four times her age could not handle the pressure she’s about to face. Will she crack?

I have some optimism that she won’t. Douglas seems well-grounded in a faith in God and in spite of her family’s troubles, she does have a support system there. And boy, I hope I’m right.

But we’re all human. Gabrielle Douglas needed a lot of love and prayers to get to where she is. Now that she’s arrived, she’ll need them more than ever.