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What We Can Learn From Gabby Douglas’ Bullying Experiences

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Photo: (Getty Images)

It’s been just a couple of months since Gabrielle Douglas captured the gold medal in the 2012 London Summer Olympics, becoming the first African-American to win gold in solo gymnastics.  Since then she’s defied gravity at the VMAs, embodied the future of our nation at the Democratic National Convention and rocked interviews with Oprah and Michelle Obama.  One would never guess that such a poised and strong 16-year-old girl had experienced some pretty serious bullying.

Many of you may remember during Olympic competition when viewers took to Twitter and Facebook to critique her...hair?  Though Gabby was the first American gymnast to win gold medals in both individual all-around and team competitions at the same Olympics, the public chatter zeroed in on her styling, rather than the record-breaking performance.  Gabby let the haters roll off her back and put the commentary in perspective, saying “I just simply gelled it back, put some clips in it and put it in a bun. Are you kidding me? I just made history. And you're focusing on my hair?”

Then, after capturing the gold, Gabby gave an interview with Oprah Winfrey where she revealed that these types of comments were nothing new to her and detailed instances of racist bullying from teammates at her former gym. According to Gabby, "One of my teammates was like ‘Can you scrape the bar? Why can't Gabby do it? She's our slave’."

But the bullying didn’t stop there.  In another interview, Gabby revealed that staff at her former gym made comments about her appearance, telling her “she might want to consider reconstructive surgery on her nose because of its flatness”.  The former gym denies any of this took place despite Gabby changing gyms, presumably to escape the verbal abuse.

Gabby’s tale reveals just how pervasive bullying is.  We’d like to assume that Olympic athletes, who are often prized as national heroes, would be immune to bullying, but her experiences demonstrate that it can happen to anyone - at school, in the gym and online. Her story also reminds us that bullying isn’t always done physically through punching and kicking.  Verbal and racist bullying can have a huge effect on confidence and self-esteem, leaving lasting emotional scars.  It’s important to acknowledge that comments, even unintentionally hurtful Facebook and Twitter chatter, can cut extremely deep and cause real pain.

Gabby Douglas is a role model beyond her Olympic performance and her endorsement deals.  Young people experiencing bullying should look to her as an example of how to overcome it.  She doesn’t let the negative comments and criticism about her looks define her or impede her success.  In order to achieve what she has at such a young age, she’s had to stay focused, be confident in herself, let the haters roll off her back and, most importantly, ask for help when the comments really hit close to the bone.  Her talent and achievements will surely be immortalized by history, but her courage to stand strong in the face of hate should not be forgotten either - words can hurt, words can make you second guess yourself, but words can never stop you from being the best you can possibly be as long as you believe in your own strength.

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