UI Lecture Committee hosts ‘An Evening with Gabby Douglas’ at Hancher Auditorium

The three-time Olympic gold medalist discussed training in West Des Moines, the Olympic Games, and her current life on a farm.


Grace Kreber

Three-time Olympic gold medalist Gabby Douglas talks with moderator Charity Nebbe during ‘An Evening with Gabby Douglas’ put on by the UI Lecture Committee at Hancher Auditorium on Thursday, Sept. 1.

Chloe Peterson, Sports Editor

When 2012 Olympic gymnastic all-around gold medalist Gabby Douglas first came to Iowa in 2011, she couldn’t believe what she was seeing out of her airplane window.

“I’m originally from Virginia Beach, Virginia,” Douglas said. “When I’m flying over here, I’m like, ‘Where’s the water?’ There’s just corn fields. Where is everything?’”

On Thursday, Douglas returned to Iowa for the first time since 2013 as the University Lecture Committee hosted ‘An Evening with Gabby Douglas’ at Hancher Auditorium.

Douglas talked about a variety of topics in her 1.5-hour discussion with moderator Charity Nebbe and the audience, including her time training in West Des Moines, the Olympic Games, and her life on a farm.

Douglas left her hometown and family at 14 to train at Chow’s Gymnastics and Dance in West Des Moines, Iowa. Douglas’ Iowa ties motivated Lecture Committee member Benton Renaud to make her part of the 2022-23 lecture circuit.

“I’m from Ankeny, Iowa, and she trained in Des Moines, Iowa, so it was really cool to see somebody so close to where I was living … doing so well in the Olympics.” Renaud said.

Douglas had been homeschooled for her entire life because of her rigorous gymnastics training schedule. But when she moved to Des Moines to train, she also attended public high school for the first time. And she didn’t last long at Valley High School.

“It’s super embarrassing, but I actually I came so late to the program, I, like, failed all the classes,” Douglas said. “So, I had to go back to online schooling because it was just, my schedule was so crazy.”

During the discussion, Douglas said the first time she truly believed she could become an Olympic gymnast was in 2012 — the same year as the London Olympic Games. 

At the 2012 Games, Douglas became the first American to win both the individual and team all-around medals. She was also the first Black woman to win the individual all-around. Douglas earned a team all-around medal at the Rio Olympic Games in 2016.

“To watch and to see a Black American woman break through in that way, I just remember it was so exciting and we were so proud,” Nebbe said.

At the same time, Douglas fought through toxicity within USA Gymnastics. In 2016, former USA Gymnastics coaches Bela and Martha Karolyi were accused of hitting and scratching gymnasts, making comments about their weight, and withholding food and water, according to USA Today

Douglas was an elite gymnast at the Karolyi’s ranch during the time of the alleged abuse.

“A lot of sports are very political and have a toxic environment,” Douglas said. And I think to really be in the mindset of win, win, win, or win, we’re going to make money, I think it takes it to another level when people do become very money greedy and very driven by that. So, you push people and things too far, too hard … I guess it adds to the journey and definitely made me stronger and smarter and have tougher skin.”

If she had the chance to change how elite gymnastics is coached, Douglas said she would make it a very structured and tough environment, but still put the athlete first — something she said didn’t happen when she was an elite gymnast.

But right now, Douglas is taking life slow. 

After seeing the food shortages at the beginning of COVID-19, she moved out to a farm in Texas with her mother and two sisters.

“[The shortages] just really put into perspective how reliant we were on grocery stores,” Douglas said. “We wanted to move out to the country and have that privacy and really see how nature works. Before your eyes, very, very amazing.”

Douglas and her family have four llamas and eight cows at the farm. She’s named all 12 of her farm animals, and Douglas said her favorite is a cow, Milkshake.

Douglas said she hasn’t officially retired from gymnastics yet. But with life on the farm, she’s just trying to keep track of her gold medals.

“That’s so funny because I was looking for them,” Douglas said of her gold medals. “I think they’re in — I think my mom has them. We’re going with that one.”

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