Gabby Douglas and Herb Douglas linked by more than a last name
United by a surname, a city of triumph and a place in history, the oldest and youngest African-American Olympic medalists, Gabby and Herb Douglas, sat down for dinner this weekend in a meeting arranged by SI at the New York Athletic Club. She is 16 years old; he is 90 years young. For one evening, they laughed, were awed by each other's stories and joked that they might be related after all. They compared memories and medals at Olympics in London, held 64 years apart: her golds for the team and individual all-around competitions in gymnastics this summer; his bronze in the long jump in 1948. "Well, your medals are bigger and shinier," the elder Douglas said. "I think yours is cooler," the younger one replied.
"Do you know after I won my medal," Mr. Douglas said, "I only did one interview?" That one interview was a radio show on the Mutual Broadcast System with Bill Stern, the man who had broadcast the first televised sporting event. It didn't make him a household name, even close to his own household. "My neighbor didn't know anything about it," Herb Douglas recalls. "When I got back, he asked, 'Where were you, anyway?'"
In 1948 Herb Douglas travelled to London by ship with the rest of the U.S. delegation. His Olympics, the first to be held after World War II, were not televised. Hers were televised, blogged and tweeted so that even people in the White House were singing her name -- and inviting her to stop by when she had the time.
Gabby Douglas met President Obama at the White House with her teammates and led the Pledge of Allegiance at the Democratic National Convention. She appeared on a box of Kellogg's Corn Flakes a day after her Olympic victory. She rang the bell at the New York Stock Exchange, threw out the first pitch at three baseball games with a respectable count of one ball and two strikes, became BFFs with Oprah, was presented an award at the VMAs and made a guest appearance on America's Got Talent. She appeared on The Today Show with her teammates and on the stage of The Tonight Show with Michelle Obama. She will soon make her acting debut on her favorite teen drama series The Vampire Diaries. Singer Nicki Minaj rapped the lyrics, "'Cause I win the gold like Gabby."
At times, the round-the-clock schedule has left her drained, but then the light bulb goes off, sometimes in the form of the megawatt smile and other times with great mischief. Last week, rather than wait for a moderator to begin a conference call with reporters, Gabby jumped in with a faux-British accent and said, "Yes, this is Esa. I have Gabrielle on the line for you." Herb Douglas is a fan. "You're excellent on that stage," he says. "Such a natural. It took me into my thirties to get comfortable with speaking."
"I'm always nervous," she said. "It takes me out of my comfort zone."
At one point, as they compared musical preferences, the elder Douglas asked the younger, "You do know Nat King Cole, don't you?" At that, the gymnast's sheepish eyes started to close as she shook her head apologetically. "You know Stevie Wonder?" he asked. To this Gabby's mother, Natalie Hawkins, replied, "Sure, she introduced Stevie Wonder at an event."
The two shared an affinity for each other's sports. Herb Douglas was a state champion in tumbling. He proudly took out some photos to show his athletic versatility, including a muscular 34-year old performing an inverted hang from some still rings on the beach. In another, he showed off his superb form off the diving board at age 50. "What would you give me for that dive?" he asked Gabby. "I'd give you a ten," she said, smiling. At one point, she mentioned that she even thought about giving up gymnastics for track, to become a sprinter like Usain Bolt.
That happened during a tough bout with homesickness a year ago, when she had moved away from her mother and three siblings from their home in Virginia all the way to Iowa, where she still trains with coach Liang Chow and lives with a host family. It's one nugget from a new book, Grace Gold and Glory, which hit the stores last week. In it, she details the blood disease that nearly took her life as an infant because her body couldn't process certain proteins; the days when the family lived in a Dodge van when they were in Oklahoma; the verbal taunts from a former coach who told her, in front of the other gym members, that she should get a nose job; and the jab from one of her teammates, who referred to Gabby as a slave. Her heroine was Hawkins, the single mother who raised her while her absentee Army father was in and out of her life. Herb Douglas' mother was also his greatest influence. His father, who also made it into his 90s, had gone blind in his 40s. Herb blazed a trail off the track, too. After hanging up his cleats, he became the third African-American to rise to vice president of Shieffelin & Company, the forerunner of Moet/Hennessy USA. During his meeting with Obama this year, the president told him, "I stand on your shoulders." Douglas' recall is vast and quick. He is grateful for his days, and he doesn't waste them. "I have three appointments tomorrow," he'll say, "and I should just about have time for another."
He was friends with Jesse Owens, the sprinter/long jumper who won four gold medals at the Berlin Games of 1936. In 1980, he honored his mentor by creating the Jesse Owens Award, an international honor given to the likes of U.S. runner Michael Johnson, Norwegian speedskater Johann Olav Koss and Australian swimmer Ian Thorpe. In even years, there was also a companion global award for peace that went to Kofi Annan and Nelson Mandela. The award ceased ten years ago, but Douglas wants to re-start it.
He still walks with vigor and purpose, greets with a robust handshake and happily giggles if someone he calls young man returns the greeting by calling him the same. If you make it to 90, you want to be Herb Douglas. On his 90th birthday at the John Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh, former NFL legends Tony Dorsett and Franco Harris convinced him to dance on stage for five minutes. Check the Youtube video.
Though he is first a delightful gentleman, Herb Douglas is most certainly a scholar. He has two degrees from the University of Pittsburgh and an honorary degree from Xavier. He knows his younger namesake has talked about being an actress.
"Now I want you to promise me one thing," he told the tenth grader. "You need to finish your education. You have some fine opportunities that take you places you never dream about, but an education can keep taking you there forever." Hawkins looked at Herb Douglas, then at her daughter and nodded. The man may as well have been family.