Grace, Gold & Glory
Gabrielle Douglas once set out on an unlikely path from homelessness to Olympic triumph. Michelle Burford partnered with the history-making gymnast to write her story of hope, faith, big dreams and perseverance. Check out The New York Times bestselling memoir at amazon.com.
BOOK EXCERPT | ZONDERVAN | DECEMBER 2012
January 2, 2012, in West Des Moines, Iowa—seven months before the London Summer Olympic Games
Gymnastics is not my passion anymore. I’d drafted those words onto my smartphone as a text message, two weeks before my mother and two of my older siblings, Joyelle and John, flew from Virginia Beach to celebrate Christmas and my sixteenth birthday with me. In October 2010, I’d left my hometown and family and moved to Iowa so I could be coached by elite trainer Liang Chow. I’d been dreaming of an Olympic gold medal since I was eight—but as I became more and more homesick, that dream seemed like a zillion miles away. That’s when I knew I needed to have the toughest conversation of my life: I had to tell Mom that I wanted to quit.
“Here we are,” Mom announced as she rounded the corner into the parking lot of Chow’s gym. I was there that afternoon for my usual 2:30 training session, something even a family visit couldn’t stop. Before either of us could get out of the silver Nissan Versa, I handed Mom my phone. She lowered her eyes onto the phone’s screen and scanned the words that I’d been too scared to say out loud—which is why I had written them down:
Gymnastics is not my passion anymore. I want to get famous off of running track, or I want to try dancing, or become a singer. I can get a job at Chick-Fil-A in Virginia Beach and live off the 14 grand I just won at World Championships. I just want to be a normal teenage kid. I am so homesick. I just want to come home.
As Mom read my letter in silence, her eyes narrowed and her expression turned to stone. “You’re breaking my heart here, Brie,” she said. I could feel my stomach flip as I hunched my shoulders and gazed down at my lap. “You’ve been doing gymnastics for ten years, and know you want to run track? Have you lost your mind?“
I hadn’t lost my mind—but I had definitely lost my fire. Did I understand the enormous sacrifices my mother had made just so I could become an elite gymnast? Absolutely. Had I been the one who begged Mom to send me to live with a host family in butt-freezing West Des Moines for nearly two years of rigorous training? Of course. But looking back on it, had I understood what it would actually feel like to live through the painful injuries and daily demands without my mom and siblings at my side every day? Not even sorta. It’s one thing to keep fighting for your dream when you’re surrounded by the four family members who know you the best. It’s an entirely different thing to push toward that dream when you feel alone and totally homesick.
“I’m not trying to break your heart, Mom,” I said.
“Look, you’re going to go into this gym right now, and you’re going to work out today,” Mom said in a tone that told me a smackdown was on the way. “I’ve worked my behind off for you to be here because this is what you said you wanted—and you’re not going to repay me like this.”
“But I’m not passionate—”
“That’s a lie!” Mom cut in. “Just a couple months ago, you said you wanted to be the world champion. Is there something going on at the gym or with your host family that you’re not telling me?” I shook my head from side to side. “Then you’re gonna have to explain yourself to me—’cause this right here isn’t making any sense.”
I could feel drops of water forming on my lower lids as I pressed my palms into the seat. “I just don’t want to do it anymore,” I finally said.
“Well, that choice is not yours to make,” Mom snapped. “You’ve got your coaches, Chow and Li, involved in this dream. They’ve put everything they have into your coaching! You’ve got your host family, Travis and Missy, involved in this dream. They’ve opened up their home and turned their lives upside down to accommodate your training schedule! You’ve got hundreds of people rallied around, helping you to get to the next level.”
“But Mom,” I cut in, my lower lip suddenly trembling, “you don’t know how it feels!”
Mom paused and looked directly at me. “I know you miss home, Brie,” she said, her tone softening just a little before she shifted it right into the next gear. “But you’ve signed a contract that says you will represent your country to the best of your ability. You’ve got a responsibility to your teammates. And now you just want to walk away? I will not let you be dishonorable! If gymnastics is not your passion, then at the very least, you will finish the season. I didn’t raise you to be a quitter.”
“It’s my body and my choice,” I said stiffly, staring straight ahead at the dashboard. “And I’m not going to do it.”
Without a word, Mom turned the key in the ignition, sped through the parking lot, and swerved left onto the main road that leads to the gym. And if you think she was upset before—this is when she really lost it.
“I can’t believe you’re doing this!” she shouted, slamming her wrists against the steering wheel to the beat of each one of her words. As the car’s tires wavered from left to right, Mom hit her brakes just in time for us to miss a pole on the right-hand side of the road. She then pulled over for Part Two of her major meltdown.
“All the people who’ve said you can’t do this, the people who’ve doubted that your dream could ever come true—I guess you’re just going to let them win,” Mom said. Her eyes filled with tears. “Why didn’t you just tell me a long time ago that you wanted to quit? What a waste—a total waste.”
“I love you, Mom,” I whispered in an attempt to calm her down. I reached over and began rubbing her back. Yes, I still wanted to quit gymnastics—and PS, I also wanted to make this argument long enough for me to miss that day’s training session with Chow—but I thought coughing up a little affection might keep me alive a few minutes longer.
“No, you don’t love me!” Mom shot back. I knew she didn’t mean those words—and she knew it too—but the tension of the moment brought out so many emotions. “You can pack your bags and buy yourself a plane ticket back to Virginia Beach,” she told me. “But when you get there, you’d better go live with your grandmother—because you’re not moving back in with me.”
Everyone knows that I’ve always had just one hero—my mom. But on the very first Monday of 2012, I couldn’t have been madder at her. In fact, after my mother, my sister Joyelle, and my brother, John, flew home to Virginia the next morning, I was still so furious that I didn’t Skype with Mom for two weeks. I knew she was right. I was just way too upset to admit it.
The next afternoon as I dragged myself into Chow’s gym for a hard workout, Mom’s words were still fresh in my head. I thought of the hundreds of double shifts she’d worked in order to pay for my training. I thought of my two sisters: Arielle, who gave up ballroom dancing, and Joyelle, who stopped ice skating so that our single mom could afford to keep me in gymnastics. I thought of my father—the one person who’d missed out on so much of the dream I was about to set aside. I thought of my closest friend and my only brother, John—the one whose little pep talk turned out to be the big miracle that changed everything that month. But I’ll come back to that part.
For now, here’s what you need to know: Exactly 210 days before I ever attempted my first vault in London, my leap of faith came this close to ending in a crash of disaster. That’s why this isn’t simply the story of how a one-handed cartwheel at age three eventually landed me on the top of an Olympic podium. It’s also the story of how the people who love me the most literally lifted me up during the lowest moments of my journey. It’s the story of how I finally faced the truth about a dad I hardly even know. It’s a testimony of the one huge lesson that I’m still learning every day: With strong faith in God and some serious determination, every dream is possible—especially if your mama refuses to let you fly home, fry chicken, and give up.
MY FATHER: This passage is the first of several essay-ettes in the memoir.
In one way, I know my dad. In another way, I never have. He was there. He was gone. He was suddenly back again. Strangely, the truth lives in every one of these statements, as well as in the cracks between them. While I can’t tell you all there is to know about this man who gave me life, I can tell you this: The story of my dream to make it to the Olympics has both everything and nothing to do with him. That’s why I’m finally choosing to share it.
My first memories of my father are dim—just faded images of him picking me up or playing with me when I was a toddler. In later years, my recollections are more concrete. Living briefly with him and his parents in Chesapeake, Virginia. Looking on in silence as he and my mother separated. Overhearing my mother implore Dad to spend time with me and my siblings. Going fishing with him before I left for Iowa. In the chapters to follow, you’ll read about the countless joys, stresses, tumbles, and thrills that line my path to London. Alongside that account, you’ll experience my dad in the same way that I did as a girl—in a series of brief snapshots and scenes that led me toward a place I’m still trying to reach.
I have always loved my father. I just haven’t always understood him. Maybe gathering up the pieces of what I remember about our moments together will somehow reveal him more clearly to me. That is the only real reason to reflect. That is also my deepest prayer.
Excerpted from The New York Times bestselling memoir entitled Grace, Gold & Glory: My Leap of Faith. Published by Zondervan, a division of HarperCollins. Hardcover edition released on December 2, 2012.