How the gymnastics world changed, and then turned, on Gabby Douglas

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RIO DE JANEIRO — She just finished seventh out of eight on Sunday’s uneven bars final, ending an Olympics where the focus was more on her facial expressions, hand placement during medal ceremony national anthems and perceived enthusiasm for her teammates than whatever she did in actual competition.

Now, Gabby Douglas was standing strong at Rio Olympic Arena with a backpack hanging from her shoulders, attempting to stand her ground, attempting to respond to the army of critics that had turned these Summer Games into anything but how she envisioned it.

“Well, in my head I had pictured it a little bit differently,” Douglas said. “I think everybody does. You want to picture yourself on top and doing those routines and being amazing.

“When you go through a lot and you have so many difficulties and people against you sometimes, it kind of just determines your character,” Douglas continued.

“Are you going to stand? Or are you going to stumble?”

[Related: How Laurie Hernandez overcame disappointment]

Four years ago in London, she stood tallest of all as the Olympic all-around champion and the historic, breakout-star golden girl. She was the beaming, bouncing “Flying Squirrel” who captivated with her presence as well as her performance.

In gymnastics, they judge everything. And not just the judges. Everyone judges everything. Douglas knows how it works.

Here in Rio, at age 20, she didn’t merely fail to match her old peppiness and excitement. She also struggled to maintain at least the illusion of it. In gymnastics, sometimes you have to fake it. Like it or loathe it, that’s how it works.

Sources close to Team USA say Douglas maintains a level of distance with some of the staff and her teammates. That came through to many watching back in the United States.

Some of it is rooted in discomfort, if not outright racism, of the critics. Some fans were outraged that she didn’t put her hand over her heart during a medal ceremony or didn’t cheer hard enough for a teammate or sat off to the side by herself during the meet. Truth is, they would have found some other reason to hate on her. Sadly, that’s always been the case when it comes to Gabby.

Gabby Douglas
Gabby Douglas was relegated to a supporting role in Rio. (Getty Images)

Some of it is fair, though. Some of it is on Douglas, who, again, understands the unwritten rules and dynamics of gymnastics, a sport draped in sequences.

“Geez,” Douglas said, her eyes beginning to well up with tears, but never, ever, breaking. “I’ve been trying to stay off the internet because it is so much negativity. And … ah … I’m like, ‘What?’ … When they talk about my hair or me not putting my hand on my heart or me being salty in the stands and, you know, really criticizing me … and it doesn’t feel good. For me, it was a little bit hurtful.

“At first they were like, ‘Good job, you’re in the Olympics,’ ” Douglas continued. “And then they kind of turn on you. It was hurtful. It was kind of a lot to deal with and you kind of have to stay away from that … [With] everything I had to go through and everything I have gone through, it’s just been a lot this time around.

“I apologize for what may have seemed me being mad in the stands,” she said of the perception that she wasn’t cheering hard enough for all-round competitors Simone Biles and Aly Raisman. “I wasn’t. I was supporting Aly and I always will support all of them in whatever they do. I don’t want anyone taking it as I was jealous or I want attention. Never. I support them and I’m sorry that I wasn’t showing it and I should have.

“And for me, it’s been a lot,” she said. “I still love them, still love the people who love me and the people who hate me.”

She exhaled.

[Photos: Gabby Douglas’ historic win at 2012 London Olympics]

This entire Olympics has been a stress test for Douglas. It didn’t need to be this way. Some of it is the nature of the sport, this idea that an individual pursuit can be jammed into the concept of team – both in competition and then in support. Everyone here is competing with each other.

Yet what might be an understandable and natural emotion in any other pursuit needs to be glossed over with a broad grin, real or fake.

For Douglas, the gymnastics world also changed on her over the past four years. As detailed in Dvora Meyers’ book “The End of the Perfect 10,” the sport has gone from rewarding fluidity and flowery performances to obsessing over degree of difficulties that favor power tumblers and ferocious athletes.

Douglas is more classically trained, unlike Rio 2016 stars Biles and Raisman whose sky-high leaps and daring attempts are now suddenly favored. While Douglas assuredly envisioned repeating as all-around champion, she entered with routines that put her a sizeable 1.2 points behind Biles in difficulty. She really never stood a chance.

By the end, she was relegated to uneven bars, both in team and individual finals. Even then, she was America’s second-best in bars behind silver medalist Madison Kocian.

Douglas is an astoundingly great gymnast, but 2012 isn’t 2016. And she’s 20 now – just getting back to the Olympics was an accomplishment. Yet rather than find a role, or a narrative, as the elder statesman, the fading all-time great on one final Summer Games spin, she was in the middle of everything, not succeeding to her exacting standards and then showing it on her face.

Maybe that’s why she wasn’t always so excited, or still willing to play pretend. To overly criticize that, though, says more about the critics.

“For me, sometimes I step back and I’m like, ‘Wait, what did I do to disrespect the people?’ ” Douglas said. “I’m sorry if I offended them. What have I done? When I step back, [I think] ‘Huh?’ I’m like, ‘I was standing in respect for USA. I am coming out here and representing them to the best of my abilities, so how would I be in disrespect?’ I don’t get this part. Sorry.”

Douglas has nothing to apologize. She’ll attend the final two days of gymnastics and probably go overboard cheering on Biles, Raisman and Laurie Hernandez. She shouldn’t have to do that, either. Then it’s time to go home. Her competitive career is likely over.

Whatever lack of enthusiasm she displayed here wouldn’t even be noticed on a basketball team or at a swim meet or in just about any other activity where a laser-focused television camera isn’t stuffed in everyone’s face.

Across a disappointing gymnastics meet, she occasionally showed disappointment. That’s it.

Douglas is one of the finest gymnasts the U.S. has ever produced, an important breakthrough personality that inspired millions around the world. That was the case in London. That’s still the case in Rio.

And as she turned and left the gymnastics hall, the end of a tumultuous week to end an illustrious career, there’s still a fresh gold medal in that backpack. One day, perhaps, she’ll get the chance to fully appreciate it.

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