Lazerus: The Flying Squirrel and the Beaming Grandpa
By Mark Lazerus 648-3140 or firstname.lastname@example.org July 4, 2012 11:08PM
Theodore Hawkins, Grandfather to Gabby Douglas who has qualified for the U.S. Olympic Gymnastics team participates in the first ever evening Merrillville 4th of July Parade on Tuesday July 3, 2012. | Jim Karczewski~for Sun-Times Media
Updated: August 6, 2012 12:00PM
Gabrielle Douglas is building up quite an arsenal of nicknames. She’s Gabby to most. She’s the Flying Squirrel in headlines. And she’s already being anointed America’s Sweetheart — the quadrennial designation given by the overzealous national media to the top American gymnast heading into the Olympics.
But to Theodore Hawkins?
“That’s my grandbaby,” he said, his proud smile obvious, even over the phone.
Douglas might be 16 years old and rapidly becoming famous on the international stage, but she’ll always be the little 8-year-old tumbling around the living room to Hawkins, proud grandfather of the winner of the U.S. Olympic Trials and the favorite for gold in London later this month.
“I always told my daughter that (Gabby) had a whole lot of spark in her,” Hawkins said.
Like millions of other Americans, Hawkins watched on television as Douglas clinched the only guaranteed spot on the Olympic team with a near-flawless performance in San Jose, Calif., on Monday. Douglas’ spot on the five-member team was all but locked up beforehand — she lost to teammate Jordyn Wieber by just two-tenths of a point at the U.S. championships last month in St. Louis, and her star power has earned her plenty of ink and TV time across the country. But that didn’t make it any less dramatic for Hawkins and his wife, Nadean, as they watched their “grandbaby” soar across the TV screen in their Merrillville living room.
“Oh, yeah, it was very tense,” said Theodore Hawkins, a Gary native. “I was feeling kind of good that she would make the Olympics, but you never know. And I wasn’t expecting her to come out No. 1 of the whole week.”
And Hawkins couldn’t help but smile as he heard Douglas’ post-meet interview on NBC, in which she said how proud she would be to “serve” her country. Even the NBC commentators said she sounded more like a soldier than an athlete. Thanks in large part to her grandfather, Douglas knows just what it means to represent the United States.
Hawkins served two tours in Vietnam, and is very active in AMVETS. He was part of a huge caravan of veterans on motorcycles accompanying a traveling Vietnam veterans tribute from Cabela’s in Hammond to Purdue North Central in Westville on Tuesday, and marched in that evening’s parade down Broadway. And Douglas’ mom, Natalie Hawkins — also born and raised in Gary — is flying out on Thursday for an AMVETS event this weekend at Marquette Park.
“When I went back for my second tour, my mother asked, ‘Why are you going back to Vietnam?’” Hawkins said. “I said it was to keep my other brother from going. But when I went back for my second tour, they sent him over, anyway. Fifty thousand of us never made it back. So she really thinks about the USA when she goes to London.”
The only question left is whether Douglas’ grandparents will be joining her across the pond. Douglas is sure to cash in on endorsement money down the road, especially if she fares well in London — Mary Lou Retton and Nastia Liukin, among others, are still commercial staples — but that’s all potential at this point. Hawkins — who was in St. Louis, but not San Jose — is more concerned with making sure that Douglas’ two sisters and one brother get there, and he expects they will. He said AMVETS is trying to put something together to help send him to London.
“She already told me, ‘Granddaddy, don’t worry about it. Keep your faith and I’m sure it’ll be all right,’” Hawkins said.
He’d say the same think back to Douglas, but the mature-beyond-her-years teenager doesn’t need it,
“My grandbaby, this is what she’s been working for her whole life,” Hawkins said. “At 16, that’s real young to have a lot of people coming at you, wanting you to do this and that. They’ve got her under lock and key right now, because they don’t want too much distraction. But she’s got her head on straight. She’ll be just fine.”
And whether he’s watching at home on TV, or live in London, Hawkins will be, too — no matter how nerve-wracking it is.
“It’s very strange, very challenging,” Hawkins said. “But it makes me feel good, because a lot of people are coming up to me about my grandbaby. They know I’m a proud grandpa.”