Sometimes we do not realize the progress we make as a society because we take things for granted. Can anyone imagine MLB without African-American players now? Yet 1947 isn’t that far back into the past, if you think about it. It is a year later than the initial age bracket of baby boomers.
There have been a few African-American women gymnasts here and there but until the magnificent Gabby Douglas came along, they were merely place holders, limited more by their mindset than by their talent. African-American girls were just not expected to excel in a sport dominated by fair-skinned Europeans, Russians, Asians, and yes, Americans.
The status quo has been turned upside down by a 16-year-old “flying squirrel” whose poise, grace and sheer ability earned her the crown jewel of the Olympics gymnastics program, the women’s all-around. Gabby is the little engine that could, the ballerina who refused not only to be shackled by history but soar above it.
And how she soared! A bird, a gazelle, a wunderkind with gravity-defying moves who left you gasping for superlatives. The favored Russians paled next to her. “What planet did this alien come from,” their stunned expression seemed to be saying when the four-routine program was over.
Gabby brought along a stirring and quintessentially American story to the London Olympics. It broke her tender heart when her parents divorced. She wasn’t sure she could overcome this emotional abyss. Then she moved from her home state of Virginia to Iowa to train with famed trainer Lian Chow when all attention was focused on Michigan’s Jordyn Wieber, the reigning all-around world champion. Although impressed with Gabby’s ability, even Chow didn’t think Gabby had what it took to reach the pinnacle of Olympics gymnastics.
But what tested Gabby the most was the whisperings of her own mind. No African-American had ever worn gymnastic’s crown jewel. Add to that the intimidating fact that a billion pairs of eyes would be watching.
If there were any doubts in the beginning, however, Gabby soon overcame them. When the barriers of the mind fell, only the sky, almost literally for this “flying squirrel,” was the limit. The result? A star was born, a dazzling and disarming star in whose light we were privileged to bask, from continent to continent.
Track and Field is yet to start. Undoubtedly there will be more athletes who will capture our imagination. Perhaps Usain Bolt will recover his brilliant Beijing form. Or maybe he will have to pass the torch to fellow Jamaican sprinter Yohan Blake. Famed Kenyan and Ethiopian runners are waiting for their moment in the sun. Michael Phelps has already become the most decorated Olympian ever.
But if a single athlete becomes the face of the London Olympics, it is Gabby Douglas. With her transcendent victory, she has opened the doors for girls for whom race will no longer be a barrier but a catalyst for success and glory, not just in the Olympics but in the wider arena of life.