How Gabby Douglas’ Mom Helped Her Go for the Gold

Written on August 14, 2013 at 5:41 pm , by

Family Circle recently sat down with Gabby Douglas and her mom, Natalie Hawkins, to discuss her latest partnership with Yopa! Greek Yogurt. And while we were impressed with the product—it’s really good!—the office was buzzing with how friendly, mature and down-to-earth Gabby was. We had lots of questions for Natalie too: from how she knew it was right for Gabby to leave home to whether her daughter should turn pro. We caught up with Natalie a few months later over the phone, and she told us the whole story.

Gabby’s interest in gymnastics started early, when she was 3 years old. She’d learned a few tricks from her older sister, Arielle, who was also a gymnast. And even though Arielle kept telling me how talented her younger sister was, I was hesitant to sign her up. Arielle had broken her wrist in a few places, and Gabby was the youngest child. But Arielle was very persistent, so I gave in a few years later.

When Gabby was 7, I took her to her first gymnastics trial session. It was just a recreational program, and I figured she was always doing flips anyhow—at least this way, she’d learn the technique from a coach. During her very first time, the owner came out and asked me, Is this your daughter? How many lessons has she had? I just held up my hand and made a big “zero” sign with my fingers.

The owner discouraged us from doing recreational classes—She has raw talent, he said—so we put her in a more competitive program, and it took off from there.

One day, as she was watching the 2008 Olympics, she told me: That’s my coach. I looked at the screen. His name was Coach Chow—and he lived in Iowa. My first was thought was: That’s not going to happen. She was only 12 years old at the time. But she was persistent—this seems to be a running theme with my kids—and once I saw how adamant she was about switching gyms and moving away, I finally gave in.

She told me, I want to change coaches—if not, I would rather quit now. I’m not going to get where I need to be if I stay in Virginia. And deep down, I knew that was true. But she was young, and no parent wants to send their child away knowing that you can’t go with them. (I still had kids in high school.) Once I contacted Chow and he said he would take her, I finally made the decision to let her go alone.

That brought up another difficult choice, though: In gymnastics, once you get an agent and make money professionally, the NCAA [National Collegiate Athletic Association] considers you a professional. Since she’d become ineligible for a college scholarship, I was very leery of signing her.

I knew that if it didn’t pan out, even if she didn’t make any money, she was going to be disqualified from competing in college. I lost a lot of sleep on that decision too. But I listened to Gabby. It was difficult, because you’re the parent. You’re supposed to make the decisions to help them, but she had made up her mind. She didn’t want to compete in college; she wanted to push herself to the limit in her sport.

Gabby and I had always discussed her career—especially when she decided at age 12 that she wanted to make the Olympic team. I told her, That’s your decision, but it’ll come with a lot of sacrifice. There were days when she wanted to stay at home rather than practice gymnastics, but I would tell her, If you don’t want to go to the gym, that’s fine, but that might hinder your goals. I just presented her with the options. And that’s what she was doing to me: She knew what she needed to do to achieve her dreams.

At the end of the day, I knew I didn’t want to stand in the way of what she wanted to accomplish and of my child potentially making history. If she stayed in Virginia, she would always wonder: what if. I wanted to say that we did it all and had no regrets. That way, she’d be able to walk away, and I’d be able to live with myself as a parent and move on with life.

Once she got to Iowa, Coach Chow was specific: She wouldn’t be able to travel back and forth from one house to another. She needed every day of training. I respected and honored that decision. So I’d go visit her, but each time I would leave, it would be hard for her. She missed her family so much. In theory, it was a great idea, but it in reality it was very difficult. It was the hardest at the end of the year, right before Christmas. She was battling injuries, her mom wasn’t there and she was going to physical therapy. There were specialists… It was serious. And that can be scary for someone who’s 14.

It all worked out great in the end, though. We Skyped a lot, and her host mom was incredible. When Gabby had doctor’s appointments, I was on speakerphone and would get to hear the doctor. I was part of the dialogue, and I think it comforted her to hear my voice.

Right now it’s about keeping her grounded. She’s worked with Nike, McDonald’, and with Yopa! It’s an exciting time to partner with different brands. Before, she was in obscurity, and it still takes some getting used to when you go out to dinner and people recognize her. I used to say, When you can pay for your own bills ______. But now she has her own money. You want to be responsible, and she loves being a role model.

Gabby and I were always good at communicating with each other. And we have a very open family. That especially helps when you have to make big decisions. Children are little gems of wisdom, and they have such a purity and innocence that it’s really worth listening to them. You’ll get some wise responses.

—As told to Maria Masters

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