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Antonelli: Olympian Gabby Douglas sends positive message at Union College

Antonelli: Olympian Gabby Douglas sends positive message at Union College

Three-time gold medalist Gabby Douglas speaks to students at Union College
Antonelli: Olympian Gabby Douglas sends positive message at Union College
U.S. Olympic champion Gabby Douglas answers questions at the Union College Speakers Forum at the Memorial Chapel Tuesday.
Photographer: Peter R. Barber

With the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics just five months away, three-time Olympic gold medalist Gabby Douglas walked into a packed Union College Memorial Chapel on Tuesday and captivated yet another audience, this time not with her eye-catching gymnastic moves, but rather with her words.

Douglas has capitalized on her fame, writing two New York Times bestselling books, “Raising the Bar” and “Grace, Gold and Glory: My Leap of Faith.” She was also featured in a 2013 Lifetime movie, “The Gabby Douglas Story.”

But Douglas is 24 years old now and in a sport that is physically and mentally demanding as gymnastics, Plan B starts earlier and she has embraced it with perfection. She spoke for an hour in the student-moderated event and zipped through the question-and-answer session like a seasoned veteran.

“What keeps me motivated is to not waste the brand that I have,” Douglas said. “I really have so much to offer and not only in gymnastics.”

Although Douglas declined to discuss her future plans in gymnastics, she is clearly comfortable in her new role as elder stateswoman in the sport, spreading words of inspiration to those willing to listen.

“Gymnastics is a grind,” Douglas said. “As for competing again, I see it day by day right now. I’m just enjoying this time and my body and mind are healing. There are so many things I want to do. I’ve been in this sport for 14 years and it’s nice to know that I can give advice to athletes and they’ll listen.”

At the 2012 Olympic Games in London, she became the first African-American woman to win a gold medal in the all-around individual event.

Also in London, Douglas became the first American gymnast to win gold in both the all-around and team competition.

In the 2016 Rio Olympics, Douglas, McKayla Maroney, Aly Raisman, Kyla Ross and Jordyn Wieber made up the Final Five gold medal team. Their name honored coach Marta Karolyi -- the team was the last one formed by Karolyi before her retirement -- and the team size: Gymnastics teams will have four members beginning this summer in Tokyo.

“The relationship I have with them is not what it was because we are all over the place now,” admits Douglas. “There was a lot of stuff going on behind the scenes in Rio. I really enjoyed London. I learned from that. I never thought I’d be sitting in this spot inspiring and empowering the youth.”

One person in the audience who was glued to Douglas and her candid advice on Tuesday was 6-year old Samantha Hardy, who trains at World Class Gymnastics in Latham.

“Is it hard to do a split?” Hardy asked Douglas.

The crowd roared with laughter as did Douglas, who shrugged and admitted that performing a split is indeed difficult.

“My passion right now is to help people,” Douglas said. “I guess being older and looking at things from a different perspective helps.”

Her first experience with gymnastics came at the age of 3 when she perfected a straight cartwheel using a technique that she learned from her older sister, Arielle, a former gymnast. One year later, Gabby taught herself how to do a one-handed cartwheel.

From there, Gabby’s mother, Natalie Hawkins, put a plan in place and eventually allowed her to leave home and follow her gymnastic dreams at just 14 years old. Douglas moved in with a host family in Des Moines, Iowa, where she started training with prominent coach Liang Chow.

“We always want to do what is best for our kids,” said Hawkins, who watched Tuesday’s event sitting next to the podium. “It’s my greatest pleasure to see her reach her dreams. We did everything we could to get her there. It’s the best feeling so as a parent it’s a joy to see her grow up and see the impact she has had on so many lives. You know, it fulfills my dreams, watching her fulfill others.”

Douglas possessed a girl-next-door-personality, rarely letting her smile leave her face. She spoke candidly about her career and how essential hard work played in her accession to the top of the gymnastics world.

“You have to go out and get it,” Douglas said. “I’ve lived by that piece of advice to this day. Nothing was ever given to me. I had to constantly keep working and keep fighting, no matter what. I just kept fighting and still continue to fight.”

After speaking, Douglas acknowledged the loud applause, walked to the back of the podium and escaped behind a curtain. Although she may never compete in another Olympics, Douglas will do just fine. She doesn’t need to hear loud approval following a solid floor exercise or beam performance anymore.

The claps and roars she received from the Union College students confirmed that she still has a platform and always will.

Douglas doesn’t need the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

But she’ll continue to carry the torch.

Reach Paul Antonelli at [email protected] or @bypaulantonelli on Twitter.

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