Gold-medal gymnast Gabby Douglas had had a rough few days. She finished seventh out of eight competitors on the uneven bars last week, and online bullies attacked over almost everything she did. She was criticized for not putting her hand over her heart while the U.S. national anthem played during her team’s gold medal ceremony, and was berated for supposedly not being enthusiastic enough for her team at the all-around final. Haters even picked on her hair, as they did during the London Olympics.
Douglas defended herself, saying that television viewers had misunderstood her. Growing up in a military family, she said, she had learned to stand at attention while “The Stars and Stripes” played, which was what she was doing during the medal ceremony. But the barrage of nastiness got to be too much. Douglas’s eyes welled up in interviews. This, too, was noted—though not crying during these Games seems to be less the norm than not: everyone from Novak Djokovic to Andy Murray to Katie Ledecky and the Brazilian women’s soccer team seems to have burst into tears at some point during the Rio Games.
On Sunday, Douglas’s mother, Natalie Hawkins, told Reuters that her daughter was “heartbroken.” Douglas, her voice wavering, allowed that the attacks had been “hurtful.” Suddenly, the online mob switched course. Leslie Jones, no stranger to online malice, launched the hashtag #LOVE4GABBYUSA, and the meanness withered. It trended on Twitter for days.
Douglas spoke to The Daily Beast on Thursday from a quiet corner of the rooftop lounge of the USA House, a gathering place for American athletes and their families overlooking Ipanama beach. She was funny, and vulnerable, and quietly upbeat. She’d taken a break from social media, she said, but her friends and family had told her of the outpouring of support.
“Are you going to let yourself say, ‘These people who talk so negatively are right?’” Douglas asked. “Or am I going to listen to the people who lavish love on me and show that love? You have to focus on the positive.” She paused, and looked out to the ocean. “I’m enjoying Rio.”
Not that the stay has been easy: She’s been in training, on buses, and at competitions for days, and leaves on Saturday.
Douglas was the darling of the 2012 London Games, in which she won an all-around gold and another one for the team competition. She added another team gold in Rio. “It was great to snag another one,” she said.
She had hoped to make the all-around finals, slots that went to Simone Biles and Aly Raisman. She had hoped to enter more competitions, but only appeared in one, the bars. On Sunday, she said, “I had pictured it a little bit differently. I think everybody does. You want to picture yourself on top and doing those routines and being amazing.”
That’s a lot to take on at age 20, and on Thursday, she said she had a different perspective. She’d been at a second Games, and had a third gold medal. “I’ve had a wonderful experience here in Rio and at these Games,” she said. “It’s been incredible.”
“Everything is over now and I hope to enjoy it a little. The beach is amazing and beautiful. I’ve seen people swimming and surfing and what is it, paddleboarding?” she asked miming the rowing action.
She’s headed to New York with her team and will do a tour, and looks forward to going home to Los Angeles and spending time with her dogs. “I’ve been away for a month and a half,” she said. “I want to crawl into my own bed!”
For the first time, she giggled, and her mouth broke into a wide smile. She’s going to take some time off, she said, and is working at the moment with Citibank on the project #StandforProgress to use social media as a positive motivator. “I want people to talk online about how they find progress, how they overcome stuff.”
Douglas said she is learning to focus on the positive, and hopes to inspire her millions of followers to do the same. “I want people to ask themselves, ‘What do you want to achieve in life? What are your goals? What do you want to make progress in?’ When you make that hurdle, you can tell yourself, ‘Yes, I made it. I didn’t let fear rule me.’”
She paused again, and swallowed. “I’ve been through so much, and it’s important for people to know that you’re going to have your ups and downs. I want to be a good representative for everybody, and to tell young girls to be strong and to have a strong mind. At the end of the day, you just can’t listen to the negativity.”
She smiled. “Listen,” Douglas said, “to the good thoughts.”