There’s More Than Meets The Eye in Gabby Douglas’ Comeback Debut

There’s More Than Meets The Eye in Gabby Douglas’ Comeback Debut

By Christy Sandmaier

No one has to tell three-time Olympic gold medalist Gabby Douglas time is of the essence. No one knows that better than she does. No one has to tell her that she’s vying for one of five spots on Team USA among the most decorated and competitive field of women the sport has ever produced in the United States. No one has to tell her that the medals she’s won and the barriers she’s already broken, alongside so many of her teammates, past and present, have inspired the very generation of athletes we’re seeing on the floor today. And no one has to tell her about Olympic year pressure and what she’s facing as she attempts to make her third Olympic team at the age of 28. 

When Inside Gymnastics visited with Douglas in January, the atmosphere inside WOGA in Plano felt relaxed, warm, and welcoming. We were immediately greeted by her mom, Natalie, and her sister, Airelle Hawkins, as Douglas headed into the final hour of her workout on that late Friday morning. It also wasn’t too long after we arrived that Anna Liukin appeared in the lobby to say hello, followed by Valeri Liukin a few moments later. And while this was a business trip, the time spent with all of them somehow felt familial. 

Almost immediately that day, we saw Douglas turning out Lin–Ling–Jaeger combinations five, six, seven times, followed by repetitive acro (her front tuck as strong as ever) and leap series work on beam. We didn’t see vault or floor, though Douglas hinted at big things to come just briefly during our interview. She appeared focused but relaxed, and looked phenomenal in training. It was clear her comeback was real and while we waited as she prepped for our photo shoot, she was both joyful and thoughtful, chatting with us about everything from social media pros and cons, what was on her playlist, TikTok trends, a little bit of gymnastics, and her happy place – her farm. She finds peace and solace there, she said. 

She also told us she was super nervous to do an interview – it had been a minute. We mentioned not to think of it as an interview, just us chatting – which made her laugh. It was a much different Gabby Douglas than just before U.S. Championships in 2016, the last time she and I spoke at length. She was cautious then, more reserved. Following the formal interview, she took time before heading home that afternoon to pose for a few personal pics, laugh a little more, and was excited to share that she’d see us soon at Winter Cup in Louisville in late February. She was light-hearted and gracious, ready for the road ahead and happy to have found her joy again. It’s resonated with me ever since.

In January, there was still time to test the competitive waters gradually, to take her time and see where she fit in so far among the United States’ best, and make any necessary adjustments. In January, anything and everything felt possible.

Fast forward to April and things are suddenly different. Women’s Qualifications in Paris are less than three months away and Douglas’ time to prepare to achieve her third Olympic dream is unbelievably close. She was ultimately sidelined in Louisville by COVID 19 and did not meet USA Gymnastics’ requirements to attend the National Team Camp in early April. In order to qualify to compete in the All-Around at U.S. Championships and have shot at competing at Olympic Trials, Douglas needed to score a 51.000 All-Around total in a qualifying competition.  

Enter the American Classic in Katy, Texas, a traditionally quiet qualifying meet compared to the very much-hyped Core Hydration Classic coming up on May 17-18 in Hartford, Connecticut. It was in Katy where Douglas would finally make her debut with all eyes on her. And so, inside Stars Gymnastics on Saturday, in front of a small crowd with a online audience waiting and watching and ready to post, write, talk about it, and analyze every move she made, Douglas took her first official steps back into competition for the first time since 2016. 

Starting on floor, she put her hands down on her opening front full to double tuck, bounced out of bounds on her full-in, and took a big lunge back on her double pike. After a gorgeous Yurchenko double on vault, she fell twice on bars missing the Jaeger (still sky-high as always!) and falling off on a cast on the low bar a few moments later. She finished her day on beam with a large wobble on her back handspring–layout step out series, along with a low landing on her double pike dismount. When the competition was complete, Douglas was in tenth place (50.650) missing the 51.000 AA score required to qualify to the Xfinity U.S. Championships beginning May 30 in Fort Worth, Texas.

Winner Jade Carey, the 2020 Olympic gold medalist on floor who was making her 2024 Elite debut following a second place finish (tied with 2023 World team gold medalist Leanne Wong) in the All-Around at the NCAA Championships, captured the title with a 55.000.

Notably though, Douglas’ three-event total on vault, bars, beam (39.200) was enough to secure a place at Championships on those events. Following the meet, Douglas’ 2012 and 2016 Olympic teammate Aly Raisman took to X to congratulate her for the incredible achievement her comeback already is.

Douglas can also still qualify in the All-Around at next month’s Core Hydration Classic, which she’ll certainly be looking to do, along with showing everyone more consistency, stronger sets, full difficulty, and more of the greatness that made her the 2012 Olympic All-Around Champion and 2015 World All-Around silver medalist. 

On Saturday, so much of what makes Gabby Douglas great was actually already right there – the amplitude on an incredible Yurchenko double full, the technique and natural command on bars and beam, and this time, a floor routine I feel is more fitting of her artistic talent than her previous routines, though certainly the mistakes in her tumbling took some of the wind out of her performance. Obviously, the mistakes can’t be ignored. Team USA is all but expected to win team gold in Paris and Douglas will need to be at her absolute best in Hartford, Fort Worth and, of course, in Minneapolis should she qualify for the Olympic Trials, to be considered for a spot on arguably the most difficult team in the world to make. 

The excitement, interest and sometimes scrutiny from all of us – the media, the fans, coaches, critics, the selection committee – has been focused on Douglas since she announced her comeback last July as we all anticipated her competitive return. But that’s to be expected. Pressure is always going to be part of the equation for any Olympic hopeful at the height of the Olympic year spotlight and exponentially present for an athlete with the resume Douglas has. No doubt she felt it.

Her return has also not only reinstated her into the spotlight in the most pressure-packed and incredible way but it also positions her uniquely to compete with two other Olympic All-Around Champions, Simone Biles (2016) and 2020 Champ Suni Lee for a coveted spot on the U.S. Olympic Team. This unprecedented scenario adds an exciting and unparalleled dimension to the sport with plenty of headlines to accompany it. Lee, who competed vault (13.250) and beam (meet high 14.300) at the American Classic is qualified on two events to the U.S. Championships, with the opportunity to petition to compete all four. She can also go to Hartford and qualify in the All-Around as well. 

As Douglas prepares for the next few weeks, the pressure will only build for her. It was still extraordinary to see her back on the floor and the mistakes she made could be exactly the extra incentive she needs to be ready without absolutely no doubts. If she’s proven anything in the past, she’s not only capable of surprising everyone in the tough moments, it’s where she can shine the brightest.

Most importantly though, she shared that this time her biggest goal is to leave the sport with no regrets. Referring to her 2016 journey, “My why is I never want to have regrets,” she said. “And that’s why I never wanted to announce any sort of retirement or say I’m done with gymnastics, even though things didn’t go well the last Olympics. I never wanted to quit on a bad day.”

Ultimately, Douglas should be proud of putting herself back out there and being brave enough to face the spotlight (and the scrutiny) all over again. She’s somewhat of a superhero, and no matter where her journey takes her from here, what I’ll remember most about this comeback (at least so far) is how joyful she was in January, the magic we saw, her bravery, and her overall approach to the sport and life now. As she put it that day, “…if I give it my all and really push myself and give it everything I’ve got, then I’ll be satisfied and be like, ‘Ok, I can finally rest.’” 

Though make no mistake. She’s back to make her third Olympic team and no matter the sentiment that might be involved, it’s a sport with huge stakes and right now, everything is on the line. And nobody knows that better than her. 

Photos by Gina Clary Photography; Ricardo Bufolin for Inside Gymnastics

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