Update (August 28, 3:30 p.m. EST)
Gabby Douglas became an overnight sensation and a national darling with her dazzling grin and brilliant gymnastics at the London Olympics. She became a role model and a symbol for little black girls everywhere when she earned the title of all around champion in the women's individual floor competition and refused to let a barrage of online negativity about her hairstyle get her down.
Then, in an interview that aired on Oprah's Next Chapter on OWN over the weekend, she became the recipient of an outpouring of sympathy when she admitted she had been the target of racial bullying while training in Virginia before moving to Iowa to coach with her mentor Liang Chow.
Douglas told Oprah:
Yeah, I was going through some tough times. I was just, you know, kind of getting racist jokes, kind of, being isolated from the group. So it was definitely hard. I would come home at night and just cry my eyes out because I was like, what did I do to deserve this? I was the only African American at that gym. I definitely felt isolated. Why am I deserving this? Is it because I'm black? Those thoughts were going through my mind. I was so scared at my old gym to show my potential because a lot of the girls would isolate me still. I was just holding back, so I felt like still I needed to move and really shine and not be discouraged and letting my talent go to waste.
Now, the staff and gymnasts of Excalibur Gymnastics, the Virginia Beach training center where the supposed bullying took place, has denied that the gym is welcoming, inclusive--and that Gabby is lying.
Gustavo Moure, Excalibur's president and CEO, released a full-throated denial of Douglas's claims.
"We have, indeed, provided an environment where all our gymnasts can thrive," Moure said. "Gabby’s remarks were hurtful and without merit. We've had more African Americans in elite and on the national team than any other gym in the country. Her African-American former teammates will answer this serious accusation. We are good people. We never were knowingly involved in any type of bullying or racist treatment, like she is accusing Excalibur."
He then went on to undermine the credibility of both Douglas and her mother, Natalie Hawkins. "If Gabby was suffering from bullying, why didn’t Mrs. Hawkins ever mention it while Gabby was training here or complain after she left Excalibur?" Moure asked. "I wish to defend the children that trained with her and supported her when she attacks them with these allegations. Is Gabrielle a credible person just because she is an Olympic Champion? She is not giving any names or dates, leading us to believe that the accusation is fake. This wouldn’t be the first time that the media has made up a story."
Owner Dena Walker, said that, in all the years she spent with Douglas at the gym, she never witnessed bullying or isolation.
"I never once heard anything about any bullying or being isolated," Walker told the Virginian-Pilot (watch the video, below). "She and my daughter are the same age and she came to all my daughter's birthday parties. She came home with me a lot, had dinner with us... she was like family to us."
"We're very hurt by the accusations," Walker said.
Morgan Evans, a former teammate and now a coach at Excalibur, said she's offended by Douglas's assertions.
"There's been a lot of successful African-American athletes at this gym," Evans said. "So for her to sit there and say that she was the only one was just mind-boggling."
"I know she didn't name names, but I think the fact that she said, Excalibur, I was bullied there, everyone's going to think, Oh, everyone at that gym's a racist so everyone at that gym is a bully," Evans continued. "It's just disrespectful to our name, to all the innocent people who were nice to her, who were respectful to her, and I just feel hurt."
Original post follows:
Before she flipped, somersaulted, and leapt into the hearts of people everywhere, Gabrielle Douglas was already generating serious buzz as part of the "fierce five," the U.S. senior women's gymnastics team heading to London Olympic games and expected to win it all.
Not only did Douglas, along with her teammates Alexandra Raisman, Jordyn Wieber, McKayla Maroney and Kyla Ross, bring home gold in the team competition, Gabby became the first African-American woman to win individual all-around gold.
Gabby sat down with Oprah Winfrey for an interview that aired on Sunday's "Oprah's Next Chapter," opening up about facing racism, homesickness, the hair controversy and even her absent dad.
We've heard much of what she told the queen of daytime before--how she nearly gave up on her dream of becoming an Olympian until her mom let her move to Iowa to train with Shawn Johnson's coach, Liang Chow, how strangers in Des Moines took her in and soon became her second family.
But her training in Virginia Beach was perhaps worse than she'd let on before.
"The real truth is, you were going through some things at the other gym, right?" Winfrey asked.
"Yeah, I was going through some tough times," Douglas said. "I was just, you know, kind of getting racist jokes, kind of, being isolated from the group. So it was definitely hard. I would come home at night and just cry my eyes out because I was like, what did I do to deserve this?"
Douglas gives a heartbreaking example--being called a slave by the other gymnasts at her training center--with her usual cheerful demeanor, but the 16-year-old was clearly affected by the insults.
"I was the only African American at that gym," she said. "I definitely felt isolated. Why am I deserving this? Is it because I'm black? Those thoughts were going through my mind."
"I was so scared at my old gym to show my potential because a lot of the girls would isolate me still. I was just holding back, so I felt like still I needed to move and really shine and not be discouraged and letting my talent go to waste," she said.
For most, her race was an irrelevant part of her success story. Instead, they took note of her high-flying skills on the high bar, her megawatt grin, even the dramatic story of her decision to leave home and family in Virginia to live and train with the perfect coach in Iowa. She, like many Olympians, made her mark by overcoming the competition, simply outshining every other gymnast on the floor to take home gold.
But Gabby's race became part of the narrative as soon as her hair became a bigger topic than her championship gymnastics. Douglas describes feeling confused at seeing mentions on Twitter and searches on Google about her hair.
The criticism started with African American women.
"You know why it sickens me?" Winfrey told her. "We're the only ones who would care to notice, because the whole world is looking at your athletic prowess, and there are a few naysayers--haters--who are on talking about your hair."
"I thought your hair was cute. I thought, Oh gee, everyone's doing the same hairdo."
But the best moment of the whole interview might be right at the start, when Winfrey first arrives in Iowa to greet Douglas.
Wrapping the giggling Olympian in a giant hug, Winfrey says: "It's like looking at my younger self."
Olympians are regularly held up as inspirational figures, particularly for young girls and boys just beginning their own forays into athletics. But Gabby Douglas, like Dominique Dawes did when she became the first black person to win a gold medal in gymnastics (in the team final in 1996), will mean something more to a generation of young African American girls.