Gabby Douglas stood proudly on the podium with her U.S. Olympic teammates as they received their gold medals after capturing the country’s second consecutive Olympic team title at the Rio Olympics this past summer.
As her “Final Five” teammates Madison Kocian, Laurie Hernandez, Simone Biles and Aly Raisman each placed their hands over their hearts while “The Star Spangled Banner” blared loudly through the Rio Olympic Arena during the medal ceremony, Douglas stood on the podium stolidly, standing at attention and taking in another moment of her stellar career.
Another gold medal. Another place in history. And round of praise for the accomplishment she had worked the better part of the last decade for.
A seemingly proud moment was anything but.
When got back to her room at the Olympic Village to check her phone, Douglas found out how much things have changed from when she first hit the spotlight four years earlier. She expected to see the heaps of praise that adorned her at the London Games, where she also won the gold medal in the all-around competition.
What Douglas read reduced her to tears instantly.
“It got very, very bad because I never experienced anything like that. I mean in 2012, they talked about my hair and yet again they still talked about my hair in Rio. I don’t know people cared about my hair. But that was it. And in 2012 it was about my looks and my appearance. And I remember just going back to the village and I would literally cry my eyes out.
“After I won a gold medal I went back and cried my eyes out….after I won a gold medal. How crazy is that?” she says.
Nothing had changed this time around either.
Internet trolls quickly pounced on an opportunity and had a field day at Douglas’ expense, questioning her patriotism and criticizing her for a perceived lack of interest in being with her teammates.
When her teammates were competing for the all-around title days later, Douglas was forced to watch from the stands, as she finished with the third highest score in the event, but Olympic rules limit each competing country to two gymnasts per event in the all-around and event finals.
Again, the Internet went to town on Douglas, calling her #CrabbyGabby, as if she was jealous of her other teammates.
Even people seated around her in the stands put in their two cents and offering their opinions and fake condolences, which made Douglas even more uneasy.
She actually had to apologize and explain herself after being accused of being unsupportive and not smiling enough while watching her teammates compete.
“I was tired of talking about the harassment, tired of crying. No more feeling sorry for myself,” she says. “I actually wanted to do something about it.”
For the past month, Douglas has been making the rounds around the country after partnering with Hack Harassment, an organization that is aimed at reducing online harassment.
Douglas signed on to become the organization’s first Change Ambassador, where she will be a spokesperson and campaign to help stop bullying on the Internet while traveling to college campuses and high schools to spread the word.
“That's why I paired up with Hack Harassment,” she says. “It's dedicated to making the Internet a better place and just putting an end to all the bullies.”
While she doesn’t think it will end all harassment online, she believe her unique voice and presence can make a difference and hope that people realize that harassment and bullying has consequences.
Douglas admits that she got to a “dark place” because of the harassment, but insists it never got to the point where she contemplated doing something to hurt herself.
“No! No! Yeah, it was bad, but it wasn’t that bad,” she says with a grin. “Seriously, it’s no laughing matter, but I want to show people that no matter how bad it gets, you can do something about it.”
As a high-profile athlete, Douglas says there is a perception out there that comments made about her don’t hurt. The accolades mean nothing if people aren’t proud of what she has done.
“I’ve trained hard for everything I have earned,” she says. “I’m not used to sitting in the stands. I'm used to be out there competing and when you get so close you don't make it, of course you're going to be hurt and devastated. And I was hurt. Mad. Very bitter. Every emotion you can think of.”
But Douglas said one of the things she wished she hadn’t done was surf the Internet and Google herself every chance she got.
“I wanted to find something at least positive. I wanted to find something positive after winning the team gold. And then when I started seeing more negative, I was hurt,” she says. “I was Googling myself and I was reading the comments because I wanted to see what people are saying like then I could change it. I was like you know what, I'll smile more, I'll do this I'll do that. So I was changing as a person. To meet everyone else's standard.”
While Douglas says her usually bubbly and positive personality took a hit after the bullying, she felt the need to respond to her “haters” if though she wasn’t sure how it would go.
“I have I responded. I did a note on Instagram and you know it's on my page and then I actually started commenting back to the people that were just so negative because they need to be held accountable,” she says. “There's people taking their lives or hurting themselves because you guys are being mean online and it's not right. I believe in standing up for yourself….And I'm so glad that I'm talking about it now. It makes me feel a whole lot better because you have to talk it out. Which I was doing, I was holding it inside.”
For Douglas, who turns 21 on Dec. 31, stopping online bullying is only part of the plan for her future.
She will continue her work with Hack Harassment, but she is also looking forward to competing on the biggest stage again. Until then, she is no rush to make a decision on her gymnastics future.
“I will take another year to make a decision about competing in the 2020 Olympics,” she says. “That's what I did last time. That's kind of what everyone else is doing because the Olympics, it weighs on you physically and mentally and you know everyone just takes a break. It's so hard.”
But don’t expect her to be in her late 20s competing.
“I don’t know if I could do that,” she says with a smile. “But I would like to do some acting and hosting in my immediate future.”
Through all the tears and the unbelievable pressure of pleasuring everyone else over the past four months, Douglas says she is getting back to the old Gabby.
The big smile, the boisterous laugh, and the competitive spirit are back.
The tears and the self-doubt are now a thing of the past.