When a variety of gymnastics pundits led by Gymcastic, The Gymternet, and All Things Gymnastics revealed that Gabby Douglas had returned to training, it came as a shock to gymnastics fans. In any other circumstance such news would be dismissed as too improbable to be believed.
Yet three different pundits were willing to put their names to this story and verify that for weeks they had been hearing rumors that Gabby Douglas had returned to serious training. Leading the charge was Gymcastic who stated they had confirmed the news via multiple sources while also establishing that Douglas is currently training at WOGA.
When I first heard the news my reaction was “surprised, but not surprised.” It was a very unexpected news story that a gymnast who last competed six years ago is coming out of retirement. Gabby has a formidable task ahead of her. In a sport where even a two-year hiatus typically prevents most gymnasts from ever again appearing in an Olympics or World Championships, Gabby Douglas would have to overcome such a hiatus that is three times in length.
Additionally, Gabby Douglas is an Olympic All-Around Champion and gymnasts who win such titles typically retire shortly after obtaining this achievement. If Gabby stages a successful comeback, she would be the first Olympic All-Around (AA) Champion to be a 3x Olympian since the 1970s. In fact, Gabby would have the longest career of any such Olympic AA Champion in the entire history of women’s gymnastics.
That’s what makes this news surprising. What makes this news unsurprising is that this is Gabby Douglas we are talking about here. She is one of the most athletically gifted athletes the sport has ever seen while also having mental strength that goes far above and beyond what most Olympians have. These two attributes put together makes Gabby Douglas one of the few athletes who could actually pull this off.
Gabby is remembered for winning the 2012 Olympic AA and that event is what most remember her for when they think of her talent. But gymnastics fans should also remember the following numbers:
Those are Douglas’ career results in the All-Around. These are not her four best results. These are all of her placements every time she even attended the World Championships or Olympics. The All-Around is the most physically exhausting, grueling, and riskiest event in gymnastics and yet Gabby never had a bad showing any time she competed in the AA. It is one of the more absurd stat lines in gymnastics history that a gymnast could compete in this event on so many different occasions and still maintain consistent top-5 placements.
But the context behind these rankings should also be considered as well:
5th in 2011: Gabby’s “worst” performance where she was the youngest competitor in the entire field and passed the minimum age cut-off by only a single day.
1st in 2012: Came on the Olympic stage where the pressure was at its most intense while beating out an opposing field featuring three rival gymnasts who finished 2nd, 3rd, and 4th in the all-decade rankings.
2nd in 2015: Finished behind only Simone Biles.
3rd in 2016: Finished in third place in qualifying at the Olympics behind Simone Biles and Aly Raisman, two gymnasts who rank 1st and 6th for most Olympic medals since 1981.
At every step of the way Gabby’s career reads like a gymnast who is even better than her results might otherwise indicate, and this from a gymnast who won the most prestigious event in all of gymnastics. It takes extraordinary athletic talent for a gymnast to have four strong results in the All-Around. But what makes Douglas’s career so fascinating is that she excelled on every attempt and she had success in the AA at both the very beginning and very end of her career. It is rare to see a gymnast excel in the AA on so many different occasions and at every single stage of her career.
Those four results are remarkable and suggest that Gabby is one of the most exceptional talents the sport has ever seen. While I do not believe these results are proof that Gabby could return and immediately emerge as a threat for an AA title, I do believe it is proof that Gabby possesses extraordinary talent that makes a potential comeback far more viable than what one would otherwise assume from someone who has been absent from the sport for six years.
Her Mental Strength
The idea of an Olympic All-Around Champion coming out of retirement or a gold medalist coming back from a 6-year break to return to training may sound unconventional, but Gabby Douglas made a career out of not being conventional.
When she won the All-Around at the 2012 Olympics Gabby Douglas reached the pinnacle of women’s gymnastics and won the most prestigious medal a gymnast can ever hope to win. What does it say about one’s personal character that after climbing the tallest mountain she decided to climb it again? It takes mental toughness to repeat the process of training and competing in a second Olympics, when the odds will be stacked even more against you than the last time around.
For a gymnast in Gabby’s position who already had an Olympic AA gold medal, it is often better for their personal brand and sponsorship value to retire at the peak of their popularity than reappear in the Olympics and face a likely defeat. But Gabby didn’t care about that because Gabby Douglas loves the thrill of breathing chalk dust in the gym and competing on the biggest stage. The financial considerations and the perception of how fans would react to an Olympic defeat were irrelevant. Gabby Douglas had the heart of the truest athlete and the fiercest competitor. The love of the game and the deep inner passion she possesses for gymnastics would be Gabby’s driving force.
In 2015 Douglas became the first Olympic AA Champion to return to the World Championships since 1981 (Elena Davydova). In 2016 she became the first Olympic AA Champion to return to the Olympics since 1980 (Nadia Comaneci). Gabby not only became the first gymnast in 34-36 years to break these barriers, she did so at the least opportune time for such an Olympic AA Champion to return and stage a comeback.
Douglas’ first comeback came during the height of Simone Biles’ career. If it is a testament to one’s personal character that Gabby reached the top of the highest mountain and then decided she wanted to climb that mountain again, she did so knowing that she was doing so for a likely second place finish. Biles was guaranteed to take Gabby’s former title and the glory Simone would achieve for herself in Rio de Janeiro-2016 was certain to knock Gabby down a peg.
But Gabby went to Rio de Janeiro anyways because none of that mattered, Douglas had her own motivations and she followed them through. Gabby went to Brazil with the primary goal of winning medals for Team USA, not achieving Olympic glory for herself. Gabby’s appearance at the 2016 Olympics was one of the greatest acts of selflessness in sports history, symbolized an athlete of the truest competitive spirit, and struck down a barrier that had existed for over three decades.
With this previous history in mind, a Gabby Douglas comeback in the current Olympic cycle is not all that out of the ordinary. For most Olympic medalists such a comeback after a six year absence would be precisely that, but this is Gabby Douglas and a run at the 2024 Olympics would merely be the second time she broke the norm. In Rio Gabby already proved her willingness to break the norm, risk everything, and pick up right where she left off. Gabby has already proved she has the mental strength that is required to upend her life and put everything on hold in the name of an Olympic comeback. Even more importantly, she already proved she can do it successfully.
Gabby Douglas has a long way to go before we should be talking about the Paris 2024 Olympics. Gabby hasn’t even officially confirmed her comeback and we don’t know if the rumors regarding her training are merely an experiment that will be abandoned short time, or the beginning of a multi-year commitment to achieve an Olympic comeback. But Gabby Douglas is a gymnast who should be taken seriously as soon as information arises that she is back in the gym. The truth is Gabby’s physical talent was exceptional when she competed and her mental strength is extraordinary.
When these two traits are combined, they turn Douglas into a formidable force. It may not guarantee success in 2024, but it gives Gabby Douglas credibility as a gymnast where anything is possible. With Gabby Douglas the sky is the limit and no matter how unlikely a comeback to elite gymnastics may seem to a gymnast who hasn’t competed in six years, in the 2024 Olympic cycle Gabby can do what she already proved in 2012 and 2016.
Gabby Douglas is capable of anything.