Gabby Douglas: The Gift of God's Word

Meet Olympic champion Gabby Douglas' most important coach.

Posted in , Jun 20, 2013

Gabby Douglas and her mom, Natalie Hawkins

Olympic champion gymnast Gabby Douglas has been selected to represent the United States as part of the Olympic gymnastic team in the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  Discover how her faith has shaped her life and her career in this 2013 story she wrote for Guideposts.

Winning two gold medals in the London Olympics last summer was a dream come true. Not only was I one of the Fierce Five, the U.S. women gymnasts who won the team competition, but I also won the individual all-around, the first African-American ever to hold that title.

Standing on top of the Olympic podium with the gold medal around my neck and my hand on my heart, hearing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” I felt overwhelmed with gratitude. To my teammates and my coach. To my family, especially my mom and my sisters and brother, who made so many sacrifices for me.

And most of all, to God. Right from the start my life has been shaped by his Word. And usually that Word came through Mom, a serious student of the Bible. Let me show you.

But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement for our peace was upon him, and by his stripes we are healed.—ISAIAH 53:5 (KJV)

Kind of a mouthful to say over a tiny baby, but this is the verse Mom claimed for me when she was worried I wasn’t going to make it. I had a pretty rocky start. Maybe that’s what made me such a toughie.

I was born in Virginia, the youngest of four. Mom had a rough labor with me and her recovery was unusually difficult. As soon as she was strong enough, she and Dad loaded up a U-Haul, hitched it to our Dodge van and moved us to Tulsa, Oklahoma. Mom was going to go to Bible school and they would go into the ministry.

Things didn’t work out the way they’d hoped. The apartment where we were supposed to stay fell through. Jobs were hard to come by, and the money ran out. We had to live in our van and eat peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Everyone except me. Even though Mom fed me constantly, I couldn’t keep anything down and kept losing weight. She couldn’t figure out what was wrong.

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“We didn’t have health insurance. Or money to take you to the doctor,” Mom told me later. “Baby, all I could do was lean on my faith.”

She sat on the floor of our van, held me in her arms and prayed those words from Isaiah over and over. She asked God to heal me, and he came through. By the time my parents could afford a doctor, the disease had gone away. I was still on the small side but I was as healthy as could be.

As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.—PROVERBS 23:7 (KJV)

We moved back to Virginia. Mom took every job she could find. Single shifts, night shifts, double shifts. Dad reenlisted as a reservist in the Virginia Air National Guard and his unit was sent to the Middle East for four months.

I won’t go into all of it, but he wasn’t around a lot, even when he came back to the United States. My parents eventually divorced. Mom was the one who really raised us.

I was a wiry, energetic kid, always trying to keep up with my brother, Johnathan, who’s only 14 months older than me. If he could climb up to the top of the closet door, so could I. If he could jump off the back of our sofa to the kitchen table, so could I. Never mind that I hit my chin on the table and bled all over it.

My older sister Arielle was in gymnastics and could do cartwheels. At age three I copied her. Then I did handstands, splits, back walkovers, flips. Not for nothing does my name, Gabrielle, mean “God’s able-bodied one”! (My family calls me Brie for short.)

“Mom, look at Brie,” Arielle said. “She needs to be in gymnastics.”

“Not yet,” Mom said. She was protective of all of us, and maybe even more so of me, since I was the baby.

Not until I was six years old did she finally take me to a real gym and sign me up. All that equipment! Beams, bars, trampolines, mats. All that space! It was way better than jumping off the couch or hanging from the door.

Soon I was spending 6 hours a week, then 15 or 20, in the gym—taking classes, learning new tricks, training for competitions. I loved it. I felt like I was home. I even did my tricks at school for the other kids’ lunch money. (Mom put a stop to that.)

I moved up to higher level competitions and won. The more I did, though, the more Mom had to work to pay for it. Gymnastics was expensive: classes, choreography, leotards, wristbands, grips, tape, travel fees, meet fees. And doctors’ bills when I got injured.

Mom wasn’t the only one in the family who made sacrifices for me. Arielle gave up ballroom dancing; my other sister, Joyelle, figure skating.

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Sometimes the biggest obstacle was me. My attitude and what was going on in my head. If I got grumpy Mom would turn to her big brown-leather Bible and pick out a verse. “All that negative thinking isn’t going to do a thing for you,” she said, and quoted Proverbs: “As a man thinketh…” As a teenage girl too!

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”— JEREMIAH 29:11 (NIV)

At age 14, I made the junior national team. We won the team gold in the 2010 Pan American Championships, and I took first place in the uneven bars. I realized I could compete with the best gymnasts in the world. But to get to the Olympics I needed a coach who’d been there.

I had one in mind: Liang Chow. I’d watched him on TV, coaching Shawn Johnson at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, where she won four medals, including gold on the beam. It wasn’t just the results. He seemed so relaxed. He and Shawn were having fun even at the biggest competition of their lives.

Then he did a gymnastics clinic in my area and taught me an Olympic-level vault in one afternoon. I had such a great time learning from him that I told Mom I wanted him to be my coach.

The problem was, he was based in West Des Moines, Iowa, 1,200 miles away. “Have you lost your mind, Brie?” Mom said. “Take a look at the map. There’s no way I’m sending you halfway across the country.”

I prayed. (Okay, I sulked too.) Arielle and Joyelle pushed and prayed. Changing Mom’s mind was going to be harder than Daniel praying his way out of that lions’ den. But if he could do it, so could I.

What Mom realized was how homesick I would be. Still, she let me go. The day she left me in Des Moines, in the fall of 2010, we hugged hard. I held her tight. She stepped back and cupped my face in her palms.

“I love you, baby girl,” she said. “Remember, God is with you all the time. And you can Skype me or text me whenever you want.”

Coach Chow was amazing. He believed in me and pushed me hard. But he made sure I had fun too, the way I did back when I first got into gymnastics and didn’t have any pressure on me.

I lived with a really nice family from the gym, Missy and Travis Parton and their daughters. The Partons became my second family. Travis quoted Scripture like Mom did, and I liked being a big sister (for once!) to their four girls.

Still, there were times I missed my mom and Arielle, Joyelle and Johnathan so badly that I just wanted to go home to Virginia. I’d never missed anything so much as my family. I mean it hurt physically. I would double over and clutch my knees to try and make the missing stop.

One time I prayed and prayed for guidance. But I didn’t hear a word from God. Not a peep!

Then on Sunday the preacher at the Partons’ church read a verse from Jeremiah that’s become one of my favorites. I felt like he was saying it just for me, just as Mom would: “For I know the plans I have for you…” It was like God was way ahead of me. He had it all figured out.

“Write the vision, and make it plain upon tables, that he may run that readeth it.”— HABAKKUK 2:2 (KJV)

You might not know Habakkuk. It’s one of the shortest books in the Old Testament. Mom read it to me when she taught me to visualize my dreams, to picture in my prayers what I wanted God to help me achieve.

I set weekly goals and visualized each of my routines. It went along with what Coach Chow told me about training with focus and then trusting my training in competition so the pressure wouldn’t get to me.

I was getting so close to where I hoped to be, yet the Olympics still felt far off. For Christmas 2011 my family visited me in Des Moines. It was only the third time I’d seen them since I moved away, and when they were about to head back home to Virginia, I really lost it. I wanted to quit and go with them.

I was tired of training, fed up with gymnastics. I’d try another sport. I’d get a job at Chick-fil-A to help out my family for a change. Mom, my sisters, my coach, the Partons, all tried to talk me out of it. I wouldn’t listen.

Finally my brother knocked some sense into me. “Today should always be better than yesterday,” Johnathan said. “If you want to be the best, you’ve got to be at your best every time.”

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I believed God gave me my Olympic dream, right? I went back to making it plain in my head, visualizing victory. And I went back to the gym reinspired. To competition too. I had my strongest showing ever at the U.S. national championships in June 2012, then came in first in the Olympic trials.

“Haven’t I ordered you, ‘Be strong, be bold’? So don’t be afraid or downhearted, because Adonai your God is with you wherever you go.”—JOSHUA 1:9 (CJB)

On July 18, 2012, I got on a plane to London with the four other members of the U.S. women’s gymnastics team, so excited it was all we could do not to shout, “We’re going to the Olympics!” (Oh, wait, maybe we did...)

In my bag I had a big envelope with letters from my family and close friends. Each letter had a date on the front, for when I was supposed to open it. I had to restrain myself from opening them all at once.

London was awesome! I went crazy every time I saw a famous athlete in the Olympic Village. I wanted to have my picture taken with them all and hang out, but Coach Chow had me training even harder.

“Push it in training,” he told me, “and the Olympics are going to be easy.”

Mom, my siblings and the Partons came to London to watch me compete. They were in the stands cheering when the Fierce Five took the title, only the second U.S. women’s team ever to win gold. But I couldn’t rest. I had the individual all-around final two days later.

That morning, August 2, I reached into my bag and pulled out the letter for the day. This one was from Mom. She reminded me to be strong in the Lord, and quoted God’s words to Moses as the Israelites reached the Promised Land. I claimed them for myself: Be strong, be bold.

The women’s all-around has four events: uneven bars, floor exercise, vault and balance beam. I started out strong with the vault, receiving a score of 15.966 out of 16. I widened my lead on the beam.

The pressure wasn’t getting to me. I trusted my training. I was still ahead at the start of the last rotation, floor exercise. Be strong, be bold. I finished my routine with a flourish, knowing I’d done my absolute best.

Now all I could do was wait till the other gymnasts completed their routines. I kept staring at the scoreboard. At last the final results were posted. I’d won the gold medal! I leaped into Coach Chow’s arms. The arena was rocking, everyone cheering, but I could hear Mom’s voice: “God is with you wherever you go.”

Yes, he is, from start to finish, all the time.

Download your free eBook, Let These Bible Verses Help You: 12 Psalms and Bible Passages to Deepen Your Joy, Happiness, Hope and Faith.

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