Hold up the gold medal, tell Gabby Douglas’ story to a roomful of parents with kids competing almost anywhere, and five minutes later, there will be nods all around. Five minutes after that, there won’t be a dry eye in the place.
It begins with Natalie Hawkins, a single mother of four, determined to find her daughter the best coach she could, then delivering 14-year-old Gabby halfway across the country to a gym where Douglas didn’t know a soul, to live with a family that couldn’t look any more different than the one she was leaving behind.
“I’m sick to my stomach the whole time and when it’s time to go back, I’m not even sure where she’s staying,” Hawkins recalled Thursday, a half-hour or so after Douglas became the first African-American to win an individual Olympic gold in gymnastics. “‘And I’m thinking to myself the whole time, ‘What kind of mother does something like that?’”
The memory, two years old now, is still fresh enough to make tears well up in the corners of her eyes. Travis and Missy Parton, who took Douglas in after a three-month stint with another family in West Des Moines, Iowa, didn’t work out, stood nearby and might have been fighting back sniffles of their own.
“I’ve been on a lot of planes, believe me. But that first flight back home,” Hawkins added, “that was the longest flight of my life.”
There are parents like Hawkins and the Partons all over the Olympics, their stories usually told only in the reflection of their children’s successes. Yet every one of them involve sacrifice.
But a conversation a few minutes later in the same arena where Douglas reaped the benefits of all that dedication and her own hard work reminds us there are sacrifices, and then there are sacrifices. And sometimes the price is too high.
Bela Karolyi, still one of the best-known names in the sport, recalled Thursday that when he was still plying his trade in Romania, behind the Iron Curtain, Douglas’ journey would have sounded like a trip to Disneyland to him. He knew the details of her story because Karolyi’s wife, Martha, is national team coordinator for the U.S. women.
“A sacrifice? She went only to Iowa,” he said. “And the family treated her like their own child.”
Still, he was not about to minimize the guts Douglas and her mother showed by doing whatever it took to get better.
“Remember, without sacrifice, there is no such thing as champion.
“Look,” he marveled, “at how she performed.”
Thankfully, few national sports teams employ the strict, centralized programs that were the hallmark of the communist sporting dynasties that ruled back in Karolyi’s heyday. And those that still do are increasingly facing challenges about their wisdom.
A story in the Shanghai Morning Post about Chinese synchronized diver Wu Minxia, who became the first woman to win three consecutive Olympic golds, revealed that her father hid the fact that both of her grandparents had died more than a year ago and her mother had fought breast cancer for eight years – so she could continue to focus on her training.
Wu, 26, left home 10 years ago to live in a government-run training facility, rarely saw her family and never went to school.
“We’ve known for years that our daughter doesn’t belong to us any more,” Wu Jueming, her father, told the paper.
Compared to that, Douglas’ life – as Karolyi noted – sounds easy. Yet it’s also proof that while Douglas and her fellow gymnasts come in pretty packages, there’s plenty of steel inside.
She watched the 2008 Beijing Olympics and admired the way then-U.S. coach Liang Chow worked with star pupil, Shawn Johnson. Based only on that impression, Douglas told her mother she wanted to train with Chow.
Two years later, she got a chance when he ran a clinic at Douglas’ gym in her hometown, Virginia Beach, Va.
In a few hours working with Chow, Douglas mastered a vault that most gymnasts need months to perform. Even though Chow’s gym was in Iowa, Douglas was convinced her path to the Olympics ran through there. Hawkins refused to budge until her oldest daughter, Arielle, wrote a list of reasons why it should happen.
“I was nervous the whole time thinking about it, sick to my stomach,” Hawkins said. “Arielle would rub my back. The first time Chow called, I was too scared to answer the phone. I kept thinking, ‘What if he changed his mind and wouldn’t take her?’ Finally, Arielle called him back and handed me the phone.”
Martha Karolyi knew the partnership of coach and athlete was meant to be.
“I don’t ever recall anybody this quickly rising from an average, good gymnast to a fantastic one,” she said.
Three months after Gabby moved, she was homesick, her mother was heartsick and things were not working out with her host family in Iowa. Hawkins was prepared to end the whole experiment. Among the letters from several other families volunteering to serve as hosts was one from the Partons, whose daughter, Leah, also trained with Chow.
“It was the last line that got me,” Hawkins recalled, her left shoulder tucked comfortably against Missy Parton’s right, as though they’d been leaning on one another forever. “It said, ‘We promise her a home very much like the home she leaves behind.’”
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.
SOURCE: The Associated Press