Few athletes would say the road to Rio was easy. For many, if not all, the journey to the 2016 Summer Games was full of highs and lows. This is something American gymnast and three-time Olympic gold medalist Gabby Douglas knows all too well. In a sport where many athletes hit their physical peak during their teenage years, 20-year-old Douglas overcame a rocky, nerve-riddled start in Olympic trials to defy the odds and make the U.S. Olympic team for a second time. In Rio, however, after helping the U.S. team win gold, a controversial rule saw Douglas, the current reigning individual Olympic all-around champion, shut out from defending her title by her fellow teammates Aly Raisman and Simone Biles. Despite the bump in the road, in an interview with Bustle conducted before Rio, Douglas remained enthusiastic and grateful for all the opportunities presented to her.
At her Olympic debut at the 2012 London Games, a 16-year-old Douglas became the first African-American woman to win gold in the individual all-around and the first U.S. gymnast to take home gold medals in both the team and individual all-around competitions during a single Olympic Games. But Douglas' triumph at the 2012 Games wasn't without obstacles.
Even when Raisman edged her out of the individual all-around with a score that came in .476 points higher than her own, a smiling Douglas had nothing but hugs and congratulations for her teammate.
"In 2010 through 2011 I had a rough, rough time. I really had to dig down deep and really find my inner strength for myself," Douglas tells Bustle, referencing a period in which she seriously considered quitting gymnastics as her training kept her separated from her family. "I feel like with anything you just have to sacrifice a lot. If you want to be a high-level athlete you really are going to have to put your life on hold."
It can be surprising to hear Douglas, who is now Gillette's Venus Swirl spokesperson, speak about once needing a confidence boost. The outgoing athlete is, nowadays, rarely seen without a 100-watt smile on her face. Even when Raisman edged her out of the individual all-around with a score that came in .476 points higher than her own, a smiling Douglas had nothing but hugs and congratulations for her teammate.
Despite having the third-highest score in the individual all-around qualifier, Douglas was shut out from competing in the final; Olympic rules dictate that each country may only send their top two scoring gymnasts into the all-around and event finals. The gymnast scoring fourth overall in qualifications — who earned a spot in the finals — came in nearly one and a half points below Douglas. In a sport where victories are often decided by a tenth of a point, the gap in scores is noteworthy.
But Douglas wasn't disappointed. While some may have felt the two-time Olympic champion needed to justify the national team director Martha Karolyi's decision to give Douglas one of the team's five spots, her solid performance in Rio (did you see her fly on the uneven bars?) shows Douglas has nothing to prove.
"There is always going to be challenges and obstacles in your way," Douglas says. "When you have talent you shouldn't let them stop you from accomplishing your dream, especially with something so big and so huge (as the Olympics). You just got to go for it."
In the days leading up to Rio, Douglas says her plan for the Olympic Games was simple: "Just be confident and cool, have fun at the same time and enjoy the road. Enjoy the process." It's a refreshingly positive outlook that encapsulates exactly why Douglas is such an inspiring role model for young girls. "You know it's been four years (since London)," she says. "I'm still learning the ropes, still getting some life lessons. You just take one thing at a time and try not to get overwhelmed."
In the four years since Douglas first captured Americans' attention at the London Games, life has been a whirlwind for the athlete. From an autobiography to a performance alongside Alicia Keys and Niki Minaj at the MTV VMAs to a made-for-TV movie to her own Barbie doll to becoming a Gillette spokeswoman to a reality TV show to her very own emoji app, Douglas has done it all.
"I'm still realizing the impact that I've made," she says. "It's truly amazing that everyone has supported me and still supports me and has really embraced me."
Since she returned to gymnastics after a brief hiatus following the 2012 Games — she wanted to live, if only briefly, as a normal teenager — training has come to dominated much of her life once again, but Douglas doesn't seem to mind. "These opportunities are so amazing and I really never would have thought that I'd be in this position where I am today," she says.
Despite the extreme pressures and expectations that come along with being an Olympian, Douglas keeps herself focused on what's most important. "I just look at it as a great opportunity," she tells Bustle. "I'm really excited about the journey ahead. Competing has just been phenomenal. Just to be back out there feels great."
Douglas will get another shot at a medal Sunday when she competes in the women's uneven bars final.