Let me preface this by stating the obvious: I don’t know Gabby Douglas.
I’ve never met Gabby. I don’t know her family. I don’t know anything more about her than what has been published in the media, and what is apparent from watching her incredible Olympic performance: that she is a gifted athlete and a talented young lady who deserves all of the accolades, all of the acclaim, and all of the adoration she has received during these Olympic Games.
During the individual event finals, Gabby looked exhausted. She looked nervous, tense and vulnerable.She didn’t have the same confidence evident in her earlier performances, and it showed in her last-place results. She admitted to being tired after the uneven bars:
“I made a little mistake, but I’m human and when you get towards the end of the Olympics you get drained and tired,” she told USA Today. “No matter how much rest you get, you wake up and your body is so tired. You train everyday and still compete every other day. You go back in the gym, and it’s very hard and your body’s stiff.”
Physical exhaustion clearly played a factor. Whether or not mental exhaustion did, too, is not for us to know. Because I don’t know Gabby, I am not going to pretend to know her mental state. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be 16, making history on the world’s biggest athletic stage, and read that people are talking about your gelled edges and messy bun – the same gelled edges and messy bun that your teammates and competitors also wear. It must have been difficult for her to see stories about her mother’s finances and to have to answer questions about her father’s whereabouts. While Gabby was clearly fatigued, the media demands on her time and the negative press probably didn’t help.
I don’t know Gabby, but I do know a bit about teenage girls.
Teenage girls are some of the most confounding creatures on the planet. They are little girls in women’s bodies. They can be poised, polished and articulate one minute, and weepy and insecure the next. A story about my own teen illustrates the point.
When I received the Corporate Counsel of the Year Award from the Metropolitan Black Bar Association in May, my 15-year-old daughter was excited about attending the awards ceremony. Her preparations – hair blown out, eyebrows shaped, manicure/pedicure, new dress, new shoes, and makeup – were as intense as mine. Before we left home, she giddily posed for pictures.
For the first hour or so after we arrived at the venue, my daughter greeted my friends and colleagues with a big smile on her face. She blushed as person after person said, “Oh, my God, you’re so grown up now! I remember you were just a little girl when I first met you!”
At our table, however, she wilted. She pulled her beautifully blown out hair back into a scrunchie. She draped a shawl around her form-fitting dress. A couple of tears slid down her perfectly made up face.
“What’s wrong?” I stage-whispered before anyone else at my table noticed.
“People keep looking at me,” she whispered back.
“They’re looking at you because you’re beautiful.”
“I don’t like it.”
“But wasn’t the point of the hair and the dress and the makeup and all that?”
“I’m just not used to it. It makes me uncomfortable.”
A few more tears escaped. Before she completely ruined her mascara, I reached in my purse and handed her a tissue and my iPad. “Here. Dry your face. And play a game. Check out for a bit. You’ll be fine.”
Once again, she was the little girl coming to visit me in my office, loving the attention at first, but hiding behind my back by the end. She recovered more quickly at 15 than she did at four. After playing a few rounds of Unblock Me on my iPad, she tuned back in. She was smiling broadly by the time I went up to the podium to give my acceptance speech.
Watching Gabby smile for the cameras, showing true sportsmanship in congratulating her teammates, I thought of my daughter. I wondered what emotions Gabby’s bright smile was masking. I hoped her mother got to give her the hugs I longed to give her. She has already shone so brightly, perhaps we had no right to be greedy for more gold for Gabby. But I was reminded that, although she competes in women’s gymnastics, Gabby Douglas is still a kid, as all teens are. Despite the grown-up poise, she is still a little girl – albeit one who has already achieved greatness, and who is destined for so much more.
Since I don’t know Gabby, when I got home from work today, I hugged my own daughter.