RIO DE JANEIRO — After finishing seventh out of eight competitors on uneven bars last week, a down-note ending to an Olympic experience where she dealt with heavy criticism on social media for her perceived lack of enthusiasm and even patriotism, Gabby Douglas fought back tears.
She felt she hadn’t performed to her exacting expectations. She thought she had been misunderstood by television viewers back in the United States. She asserted she never meant to offend. She shook off suggestions that she didn’t root hard enough for her teammates or that forgetting to put her hand on her heart during the national anthem was indicative of anything.
It was a tough moment for the 20-year-old – a real-time, real-life look into the cauldron of pressure young athletes, particularly gymnasts, deal with.
“It was hurtful,” Douglas said then.
Her words and tears and vulnerability went viral and then a funny thing happened: The social media sites known for being cruel, sometimes rooted in awful racism, rallied to her defense.
#LOVE4GABBYUSA trended on Twitter for days, powered by everyday fans but also a slew of celebrities. What was once ugly, was now uplifting.
Douglas said Thursday that she’s remained off social media, as she promised she would, but friends and family have alerted her to the outpouring.
“Yeah, I heard about that,” Douglas told Yahoo Sports. “And for me that just means so much knowing that where is hate, love is more. And that is just so encouraging to me. A lot of people got behind the situation and supported me. It’s amazing.”
Douglas was talking from the rooftop lounge of the USA House, a social gathering place for American Olympians, families and fans. It offered a sweeping view of Ipanema Beach across the street and Sugarloaf Mountain in the distance. It’s the kind of signature shots that Rio postcards are made from.
For Douglas, the Rio Olympics were previously a recurring rotation of athletes’ village, training, competition and dining hall. And lots of buses. She leaves Saturday, so her time to enjoy town is limited. That’s the life of a competitor here.
She had a star-turning 2012 London Games, where she won a team and an all-around gold. Adding team gold in 2016, running her medal count to three, should’ve been enough.
For Douglas, it wasn’t. She wanted to make all-around finals but finished as the third American, behind Simone Biles and Aly Raisman, who went gold-silver. She wanted to be a bigger factor on the team, but was relegated to just one event. She qualified for only one event final, bars, and then didn’t live up to her own standards. She was frustrated.
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“In my head I had pictured it a little bit differently,” Douglas said Sunday after her bars performance. “I think everybody does. You want to picture yourself on top and doing those routines and being amazing.”
Time, she said, has brought some perspective. No, she wasn’t the star of the show like London. She was in it though. A third gold is three more than pretty much every other person on the face of the earth has ever won. And no matter the intensity she sometimes exhibits, she has enjoyed nearly every moment of being in two Games. Even the competition.
“It was just pretty amazing to be back in the Games,” she said. “The competition is incredible.”
There’s a USA Gymnastics tour coming. Then she planned some downtime back at her home in LA, hanging with her dogs Zoe and Chandler. After that, who knows? Her future in competitive gymnastics is unlikely. This is almost certainly her final Olympics … well, Summer Olympics at least.
“I actually might do figure skating Olympics in two years,” Douglas said with a laugh. “Join figure skating. … I’m going to the Winter Olympics.”
At least she was laughing. Her fans had rallied behind her and lifted her up. Her experience had proven a tremendous conversation starter about the challenges of modern life in the spotlight. There was good that came from it all.
Now the stress of competition was gone. Her mother and some friends were waiting for her. The waves of the South Atlantic were crashing across the famous beach down below.
Gabby Douglas’ Olympics were finishing just fine.