Q&A: Olympic medalist talks faith, forgiveness, matzo ball soup

Gabrielle Douglas, who walked away with the gymnastic gold at the London Olympics, is out with her first book, Grace, Gold & Glory: My Leap of Faith (Zondervan). Ms. Douglas, who turns 17 on New Year’s Eve, talked with Adelle M. Banks of Religion News Service about her prayer life, her love of matzo ball soup and overcoming homesickness to make it to the Olympics.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Everyone knows you as a gold medal Olympic gymnast, but how do you define yourself as a young woman of faith?

Faith plays a very big role in my life. I don’t know where I would be without it today. I’ve always been praying for everything. And my mom always exposed me and my siblings to being a Christian and the Bible. I was watching back and looking at the Olympics and my mouth is moving—and that’s me praying.

How did your faith get you through preparing for difficult gymnastic maneuvers like the uneven bars?

The Scriptures motivate me and I use them to help me overcome circumstances like practices and competitions. If I’m having trouble with a skill: “I can do all things in Christ that strengthens me.” Or sometimes I get a little nervous: “Do not fear; always believe.”

Summer Olympics champion Gabrielle “Gabby” Douglas—the first African-American gymnast to win gold medals in both the individual all-around and team competitions—was invited to throw the first pitch last August at a baseball game between the New York Mets and the Colorado Rockies. PHOTO BY ROBERT KOWAL/COURTESY WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

You saw rain on the day of the all-around competition, and said you saw it as a good sign from God. Why?

My mom told me that it’s God’s manifestation ready to happen and great things are going to happen. Before the all-around finals, I had a peace in my heart and it was raining and I texted my mom and said, “Mom, it’s raining. You know what that means.” And she said, “Yes, I do.”

You wrote that your family celebrated Hanukkah when you were 9, and that it has observed the Sabbath and you’ve enjoyed your mother’s matzo ball soup. Are you doing anything to mark Hanukkah this year?

No, I am not. But I really love matzo ball soup and I just had matzo ball soup recently and it’s just one of my favorite Jewish meals.

Are you going back to church as an Olympic champion or an average churchgoer?

When I go back in church I’m just going to be that same old Gabby Douglas—just praise and worship and listening to the pastor preach. So, it’s not going to be any different.

You lived with a churchgoing host family in Iowa. How did that come about?

God laid it on Travis [Parton], my host family dad. He was thinking about hosting a gymnast, and he wrote to [coach Liang] Chow and said “Chow, if there’s anyone that needs a break and they want to achieve their dreams, I’m opening up my house.” And a month later I arrived and Chow came back to Travis and said, “Well, is that offer still open?” and Travis said yes. It was definitely God’s working.

You spent close to two years living far from your family to train for the Olympics. You called it your leap of faith but you almost gave up on it. Why?

My mom and my siblings came to Iowa to celebrate Christmas with me. It went by so fast and they were ready to go home and pack up and leave and I was wanting to go home. I hadn’t been home for a while. I wanted to quit and leave the sport just because I was homesick.

How did you overcome that?

My mom and my brother sat me down. They told me to keep fighting and keep pushing. They didn’t want me to come home as a quitter but they wanted me to come home as a champion. They also said they didn’t want me to come home and watch the Olympics on the TV and say I wish I would have gone there. They didn’t want me to have regret and they knew that I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t make the team. So I went back to the gym and I was just determined to push myself.

You’ve also faced personal criticism—from a former coach who thought you needed a nose job to people who questioned your hairstyle during the Olympics. How did you handle that?

The whole hair thing I don’t really focus on because I was at the Olympics. I was the first African-American to win the gold medal in all-around so I focused on that. The whole bullying part—nobody likes to be made fun of. It was very hard to overcome that and I was very hurt. Now I have a forgiving heart. I forgive them and I move on.

You were on Jay Leno’s show with first lady Michelle Obama, and you’ve received tweets from celebrities. How do you stay humble in the midst of all this adulation?

My mom definitely keeps me grounded and I’m thankful. I’m a good giver. I love to give back. I want to give back to the people who always supported me. I want to be that blessing to other people.

What are your next steps?

Definitely I hope to attend Rio in 2016 and I think it will be wonderful if I can attend two Olympic games.

Special Contributor to UMR

Special Contributor

This story was written by a special contributor to The United Methodist Reporter. You may send your article submissions to
editor@circuitwritermedia.com
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