Natalie Hawkins is the mother behind gold medal Olympic gymnast Gabrielle Douglas. Sixteen-year-old Douglas managed to capture the gold medal in the women’s gymnastics all-around, and helped lead the U.S. women’s gymnastics team to the gold medal in team competition. But Gabby couldn’t have done it without the love and support of Natalie, who sacrificed time, money — and even keeping her family together — for her to succeed. Two years ago, Natalie allowed Gabby to move across the country to Des Moines, Iowa, to train with Shawn Johnson’s coach Liang Chow, and her sacrifice paid off.
Just days after Gabby’s ground-breaking win as the first African-American woman to win all-around gold in gymnastics at the Olympics, we spoke to Natalie about how she raised four kids — and an Olympic champion.
Tell me about Gabby’s journey to the Olympics.
In 2008, at about age 12, she said to me, “Mom, I want to move away.” When the Olympics rolled around in 2008, she said, “See that coach training with Shawn Johnson? I want to train with him.”
I said, “He doesn’t live anywhere near us. No way.”
Two years later, in 2010, she came to me and said, “If I’m going to make my dream come true, I’m really going to have to switch coaches. Whether you’re with me or I go with myself, I’ve got to make my dream come alive. I have to do this, mom.”
What mother wants to send her kid away? I’m a very protective mom. I never really allowed my kids to spend the night away from home. All of them will tell you, they can count on one hand the times I’ve let them sleep away from home.
It came to a head, and I had to make a decision. And there were only two factors to consider: I could either stand in the way of her dreams, or I could get on board with it. And I knew she needed another coach and a higher level of coaching. There were a lot of different components. Her former coach was not a gymnast, he was a swimmer. [Her current coach Liang] Chow was a former gymnast with the Republic of China. He was an amazing gymnast himself, and he produced a gymnast to the level of Shawn Johnson. What might he be able to do with my daughter?
I knew it was the right decision, but how do you come to terms with it? Her two older sisters wrote a list, with the pros and cons. On one side was all the reasons she should go, and on the other side, was only one con, which was that we would miss her. I had to think, Am I going to be selfish, or am I going to trust that she’s going to be okay?
So Gabby moved to West Des Moines, Iowa, to train with Chow.
She’s been living with the most phenomenal family, Travis and Missy Parton and their kids. They have gone beyond my wildest expectations. They have a daughter who is a gymnast with Chow and they saw the struggles and they knew that there’d be some gymnasts trying to be trained by Chow. So they sent him a letter and said, “We’d like to open up our home and have an opportunity to love whatever girl comes through our door. We would like them to know that even though we’re not their parents they feel like they have every comfort of their life that they’ve left.” When I read that letter, I knew that it was the right family. I could tell that it was some kindred spirits.
Did you ever imagine that this would all happen?
I dreamed that it could, but I didn’t envision all of this. I saw her training and competing and making the Olympic team, thinking maybe she’d get a medal or maybe she wouldn’t. My family has always been supportive of Gabrielle’s career. We’d always go out after a meet. We celebrate because just to go out there and do what they do is courageous. The way it went here was, she won the all-around-goal and they said, “You have 30 seconds.” And then I had to share it with everyone. So mom didn’t get the time. She’s always been right up under my leg. She used to be very, very shy and reserved. She was always attached to me. It’s kind of hard, because I’m used to her always clinging to me. Again, it’s just a part of me having to be unselfish, because she’s achieved a really great thing. I want her to be able to fulfill the desires that she has as far as inspiring other youth and even inspiring her brother and her sisters.
Are any of them involved in sports?
Is that weird for them to have a sibling that’s achieved what she has?
They are her biggest fans, her biggest cheerleaders. They always have been. It was her sister Ariel that talked me into putting Gabrielle in gymnastics. From the time she was three to the time she was 7, she harassed me about it. She was persistent.
My son John and my other daughter Joy have been extremely supportive of her career.
My son has done everything, and Joy took to figure skating. We couldn’t afford to keep Joy in figure skating, as a single parent, it was just too difficult. And Gabrielle was a lot further in her career. That was very hard as a parent. You almost feel like you’re choosing. I just thank God that Joy understood.
The one comfort and solace we took was that Gabrielle’s career was rising. Ariel did gymnastics and was Gabby’s first coach, and then transferred to competition cheerleading, which is very expensive, too. At one point in time, everybody was in a different state!
What do you think is the most powerful thing that being a competitive gymnast has given Gabby?
It’s really taught her to persevere. There were some really tough times, some really big struggles, where quitting was the easy way out. We as a family just had to be there to support her. There were times she wanted to come back home — and I wanted to bring her back home — but I knew that if she was sitting at home [during the Olympics] would be unbearable. It would make living life very difficult, and I couldn’t live with myself if I knew I had a part in that decision. When she said earlier this year that she wanted to quit and come back home, we had a heart-to-heart. I said if you really don’t want to do it anymore and you don’t enjoy it, I understand that. But if it’s just because you’re homesick, you need to push through that.
In life you have hard times, and your job is to get through it with grace, dignity, and be okay with the decisions you’ve made in the midst of that struggle.
Watch Gabby and Natalie talk about the sacrifices they’ve made in the video above.