Gary fans flip over gold-medal gymnast
By Christin Nance Lazerus and Michelle L. Quinn The Post-Tribune October 15, 2012 3:50PM
Gabrielle "Gabby" Douglas smiles while answering questions from membes of the media while attending a congratulatory luncheon held in her and her mother's honor at Indiana University Northwest in Gary, Ind. Monday Oct. 15, 2012. Douglas's mother, Natalie Hawkins, is a native of Gary. | Andy Lavalley~Sun-Times Media
Updated: November 17, 2012 6:13AM
GARY — The Steel City laid out the red carpet for Olympic champion gymnast Gabrielle Douglas on Monday.
Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson declared Oct. 15 “Gabrielle Douglas Day” and gave the two-time gold medalist a key to the city during a reception held in Douglas’ honor at the Genesis Convention Center on Monday night. Douglas was born and raised in Virginia Beach, Va., but she has ties to Gary, where her mother, Natalie Hawkins, grew up and her grandparents still live.
The hall was packed with elected officials and aspiring gymnasts — including some showing off their back walkovers in one corner — as they listened to Douglas and her mother, Natalie Hawkins, detail the struggles the family endured before Douglas’ golden moment at the 2012 London Olympics.
Gabrielle thanked her fans for their tremendous support during her Olympic bid. One of her fondest memories of Gary is Thanksgiving sweet potato pie she gets with family.
Earlier in the day, Douglas appeared at the Barden Foundation’s annual scholarship kickoff luncheon Indiana University Northwest. She and Hawkins said the road to the Olympics was not easy by a long shot. Money was tough to come by a lot of the time, and up to a few weeks before London, Hawkins wasn’t sure she and her children would be able to go.
But they did, and once there, the pride was contagious.
“Here we were in our team jackets, and people would shout ‘USA! USA!’ when we walked by,” Hawkins said.
Rob and Shelly Surber, who own Lakeshore Gymnastics in Valparaiso, were surrounded many of the their 500 gymnasts to hear about the commitment it takes to become an elite gymnast.
“It’s a good thing to expose them to the work ethic, dedication, compromise and practice it requires,” Shelly Surber said.
Douglas made history as the first African-American to win the all-around title. The U.S. team netted its first Olympic title in women’s gymnastics since 1996.
There were many times Gabrielle wanted to quit altogether, but Hawkins told her repeatedly that now was not the time.
“I’m so thankful she heeded those words,” Hawkins said. “Never stop pushing for your dreams, and surround yourself with people of like vision.”
For her part, Gabrielle saw her mother struggle, and a big part of her motivation was that she wanted to help her family. And if she could do it, anyone could.
“I would do it all again just to inspire you guys,” she said.
Thea Bowman Leadership Academy fifth-grader Capri Jones, 11, and fourth-grader Anaya Graham, 9, were thrilled at the opportunity to hear Douglas speak.
“It’s so inspiring to us because it teaches us that girls of any color can accomplish great things,” Jones said.
Merrillville resident Jeiavonni Gage, 13, has been involved in gymnastics since she was 3 and she used to train at Gym Plus, where Douglas trained during a Thanksgiving visit in 2009.
“I was watching her on TV and it inspired me to tell my mom that I want to be in the Olympics,” Gage said.
As poised a celebrity as she’s become in the last two months, Douglas is clearly still excited by her newfound fame.
Douglas said her lifelong dream of stepping on the podium was everything she knew it would be.
“It looks like a rock concert, and once I got up there, that’s exactly what it felt like — a concert with all these people cheering me on,” she said. “My advice is for people to keep pushing because you never want to regret not doing something.”
Teneia Martin, a senior at Thea Bowman, and Niyah Calhoun, a senior at East Chicago Central, agreed the gymnast is a huge inspiration for them. Calhoun said Gabrielle’s Northwest Indiana ties make her hopeful, while Martin said it’s good to see someone so young achieve so much so quickly.