GYMNASTICS IS A SPORT THAT CAUSES ATHLETES TO GROW UP FAST, whether they win an Olympic gold medal like the Fierce Five or sustain a devastating, life-altering injury. Gabrielle Douglas and Jacoby Miles, who was paralysed doing a bars dismount at her Seattle gym right before Thanksgiving, are only about a year apart in age, and gymnastics has changed each of their lives in ways both are probably just beginning to grasp. But the fact remains that as they take on the challenges of an adult world, they are not that far removed from childhood.
Gymnastics is a sport about mental toughness, and one of the fundamental truths Douglas hits on in her new memoir, “Grace, Gold and Glory: My Leap of Faith,” (published by Zondervan, available from Amazon) is how gymnasts, under their toned bodies and stoic, suck-it-up mentalities, are still sensitive young women. A talented 12-year-old is still a 12-year-old who can be deeply wounded when someone says the wrong thing, even if it was with good intentions.
The wrong thing (that might or might not have been said with good intentions; certainly in hindsight, it sounds careless) that changed Gabby Douglas’s life wasn’t what’s already been written about extensively this past summer (in case we need a refresher, that one of the coaches at Excalibur in Virginia Beach once told Douglas she needed a nose job, and one of her teammates once suggested Douglas scrape excess chalk off the bars because “she’s our slave”) but in a hotel room after the 2010 Junior U.S. Championships, when her coach told her and her mother that Gabby’s fourth place finish in the all-around was incredible, because realistically, the coach saw her in 9th or 10th.
Wow. Wouldn’t you have left, too?
Gymnastics sets itself up as a sport to be about little digs like that. Don’t get me wrong; it’s about a lot more too, but when the goal is perfection the snide little nudges are always there, and they leap off the pages of “Gold, Grace and Glory.” In post-Olympic interviews, Douglas has been cautious but not very shy about calling out people who said hurtful things, and all of a sudden it becomes imminently clear that the superstar is still a vulnerable adolescent who just wishes her family were there with her.
Outside the gym, Gabby Douglas grew up with quite a load on her shoulders — we learn early on in the book that she was born with a rare blood disorder that caused her to be very sick as an infant and that her family lived in a van for several months. Her father was in and out (but mostly out) of her life; money was always tight, and her siblings gave up their own sports activities so her mother could pay for gymnastics lessons. (There’s no mention of Excalibur Gymnastics’s allegation that the Douglases left a balance owing when Gabby moved from Excalibur to train with Liang Chow in the fall of 2010, though from Douglas’s frankness about how her family struggled to make ends meet it seems possible.)
Since the 1995 publication of Joan Ryan’s “Little Girls in Pretty Boxes,” a book that laid bare the absolute worst in competitive gymnastics (abusive coaching techniques, anorexia, bulimia, pressure, parents obsessed with achievement by proxy and so on), the trend in gymnastics has actually been a more wholesome one: no weigh-ins, gymnasts who stay home to work with their parents rather than leaving home to train with coaches across the country, and young people who express themselves via social media, showing that as stony as they can be in competition, they do have personality. Gabby Douglas’s journey from Virginia Beach to West Des Moines, Iowa to train with Chow is a throwback to the early ’90s, when you almost always looked at a routine and saw intense beauty but also intense sacrifice.
Like most gymnastics works ghosted by non-gymnastics types, there’s a bit to nitpick, especially in ghostwriter Michelle Burford’s description of some skills (“Do you have any idea what it feels like to master a roundoff double back on the beam?” she has Douglas ask the reader at one point; she also insinuates that Douglas competed on beam in team finals at the 2011 Worlds.) But on the whole it’s not a bad treatment of the sport from a writer who confesses on the jacket of the book that she’d never so much as attempted a cartwheel before meeting her subject.
For the most part, Gabby’s story manages to be uplifting without being goopy, especially as Burford narrates the action during the run-up to the Olympic Games. We know what happens, of course, but it doesn’t make the book any less satisfying, as Gabby, after some post-2011 Worlds adolescent-think of wanting to quit gymnastics, return to her family in Virginia Beach, go work at Chick-fil-A and “get famous off of running track,” finally drives unflinchingly toward to her ultimate goal.
In personal interviews, Gabby Douglas can come off as very charmingly 16 — bubbling with enthusiasm and just a little scattershot. Burford does an excellent job of keeping the youthful bubbliness intact — down to adding “lol” at the ends of sentences here and there — while also bringing out a reflective person who feels her experiences very deeply and is awed and humbled by all that has happened to her. Adolescence will someday fall away, and the giggly teen is already filling out into a mature, thoughtful, formidable woman and gymnast. “Grace, Gold and Glory” is an exceptional introduction of that person and her story.
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