Olympic all-around champion Gabby Douglas made headlines this week when she told Oprah that she had experienced racially motivated bullying while at Excalibur, the gym in Virginia Beach. She had trained there for over six years before making the move to Iowa and Liang Chow with whom she won the Olympic gold medal. In response, the gyms' owners and former pupils lashed out, denying that Douglas was ever racially bullied.
You might be tempted to feel sympathetic towards the gym and its owners. After all, no one likes being called a racist. And if you watch the whole interview, she never accused the coaches or leadership of racist behavior. She merely stated that she, on occasion, experienced it from girls she worked out with. And since kids typically don't make a habit of bullying others directly in front of adults lest they get caught and punished, it is probable that the Excalibur coaches did not know about their students' misdeeds.
However, this is not the first time that the Excalibur coaches, Dena Walker and Gustavo Moure, have gone on the record with their disapproval of Douglas or her mother, Natalie Hawkins. The first shot was fired way back in March shortly after Douglas unofficially won the American Cup, outscoring defending world champion Jordyn Wieber. (She performed as a scored exhibition competitor since each country was only permitted two entrants. Based on their performances at the 2011 World Championships, Wieber and Aly Raisman earned invites ahead of Douglas.) It was at that meet that Douglas first indicated that she wasn't just an uneven bars specialist but a legitimate all around threat.
In an interview with the Virginia Pilot, her former coaches seemed bitter that their top pupil left them for a different coach and demand what they deem is their fair share of the credit in her success.
"It's sickening," said one of the gym moms, Sandy Stageburg (whose daughter Randy was one of the first to publicly castigate Douglas for her description of racially motivated bullying at Excalibur). At the time, Stageburg was referring to her horror at the fact that the world will only see Chow should Douglas end up on the victory stand. "I know Gabby's good," Stageberg said, "but she wasn't made by Chow. You don't make an Olympian in a year and a half."
And no one, not even Chow himself, has claimed this. He has openly acknowledged that Douglas received excellent instruction while at Excalibur. As the coach of 2008 Olympic gold medalist Shawn Johnson, he's fully aware that years and years of coaching and effort go into reaching the Olympic level. Yet it's not his job to recite Douglas' coaching history every time he is photographed near her.
However, the Excalibur coaches weren't just seeking credit for Douglas' gymnastics proficiency. They were after gratitude for any and all other kindnesses they performed on her behalf. They used this article and moment to reveal to reporters Douglas' difficult family life. The Pilot reported:
"But what are coaches to do, they ask, when a star athlete's mother is on long-term medical disability from a financial services company, her income is dramatically cut and she can't pay for her daughter to compete, say, in Chicago or Philadelphia? What do you do when those issues are compounded by domestic strife that has led the mother to divorce the same man twice?"
As a result, the coaches claimed, they had to act as surrogate parents to Douglas and that Hawkins owes them thousands of dollars. Not only do they depict Hawkins as the sort of welfare queen popularized in the ‘90s-recipient of government largesse and a deadbeat who isn't married to her daughter's father-they had the gall to reveal aspects of their former pupil's personal life to the press. What sort of decent teacher or coach does that to a student? If they really just wanted more credit, they could've merely praised Douglas. The headline instead could've read, "Local Coaches Congratulate Former Star Pupil." This would've gotten them the recognition they craved without dragging Douglas down.
If there is indeed a financial dispute then this is a matter for courts and litigation. But as a 14-year-old at the time of the move, Douglas is not responsible for how her mother handled (or mishandled) her pecuniary matters. Nor is she responsible for the allegedly unstable nature of her own home. That her parents' relationship was in turmoil is not a commentary on Douglas. The Excalibur coaches should've never invoked this in the media.
Also, the Excalibur coaches seemed to have itemized the good deeds they did for their former pupil as though they were planning to report them to the IRS as charitable deductions, but instead laid them all out for reporters.
If this is indeed how the viewed their kindnesses towards Douglas then it wouldn't surprise me if she felt like a charity case. I attended a religious private school growing up and was put on a generous scholarship after my parents divorced and both fell ill almost simultaneously. While I was aware that I was the beneficiary of a tremendous kindness, I wasn't constantly reminded of this by my school's administration. Nor did anyone else in my class know that I wasn't paying sticker price. Despite publicly breaking with the Orthodox Judaism of my youth, the school's administration has never commented on it. Nor have they chased me down demanding to be remunerated for my tuition all those years ago. My school routinely drilled us in Maimonides' eight levels of charity, and I'm pretty sure that publicizing the recipient and shaming her isn't anywhere on the list.
The same sort of discretion didn't seem to exist in Douglas' case. To hear the coaches and gym parents speak, it seems that everyone knew that Douglas was on scholarship. Perhaps the taunts Douglas endured it was just "kids being kids" as Stageburg has asserted. But if everyone knew that Douglas was getting instruction for free then maybe some of the kids truly felt they could ask her to scrape the chalk from the bar because she was "their slave." After all, their parents were paying gym tuition and Douglas' were not.
But this is not just about charity gone horribly awry. It's the fact that Douglas, long before she mentioned anything about bullying, was being punished unfairly for showing insufficient gratitude to her former coaches and doing something not at all uncommon in high-level athletics-finding a new coach.
There aren't many gymnasts who spend their entire careers under the tutelage of just one coach. Gym switching at the elite level isn't uncommon (though it is not as rampant as it was during the 80s and 90s when there were fewer elite training centers in the U.S. and every seemed to end up at the Karolyis' Houston doorstep). Even if Moure and Walker believed that they could help Douglas achieve her goals, she also had to have the same faith in their plan. And clearly she didn't feel like she was thriving at Excalibur. Perhaps it had been the right gym for her at one point in her career, but Douglas felt she needed new instruction and moved.
Douglas seems like a perfectly amiable young woman. I'm sure she learned to say "please" and "thank you" at the same age we all do. I'm sure she also expressed her gratitude at the right times, such as when someone holds the door open for her or performs a kindness. I imagine the coaches were thanked at the time they helped Douglas and before she left the gym. As for her former teammates, she even shared her gratitude on Facebook in 2010 right before she moved to Iowa.
Her former coaches demands for public expression of gratitude and credit is unseemly, to put it mildly. As far as I know, my ninth grade math teacher never tried to take credit for my getting into Penn on a scholarship though he undoubtedly played a role. (Seriously—anyone who helped me get through math classes in high school can take significant credit for getting me into college.) While it always feels nice to have your contributions publicly acknowledged, no credible teacher or coach would stand up and demand this from a former pupil.
McKayla Maroney's former coaches haven't. She also switched gyms just a couple of years before the Olympics, moving from Gym Max where she trained with Kyla Ross to nearby All Olympia Gymnastics Academy. When she won her world title on the vault last year after just a year at her new gym, her former coaches, the ones who guided her throughout most of her career, didn't stand up and demand credit for teaching her how to vault.
Al Fong has been relatively quiet about Katelyn Ohashi, the 2011 junior champion who started racking up big wins and recognition not too long after she left his gym to move to Texas to train at WOGA (home to Olympic champions Nastia Liukin and Carly Patterson).
So why have Douglas' former coaches been slinging mud at her for months over what was a fairly standard move? Why are they demanding credit in the media when other coaches who have also lost top stars have not denigrated their former athletes in the press? Is it just about money? If it is just that, Douglas' can more than repay her former gym now.
This negative campaign in the media might get Moure and Walker money and TV time, but at the expense of their reputations as teachers. No credible coach actively tries to take credit for their pupil's success.
Dvora Meyers is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Slate, Tablet and elsewhere. She writes about gymnastics and Judaism at Unorthodox Gymnastics, and she is the author of Heresy on the High Beam: Confessions of an Unbalanced Jewess. She blogs about woman-y stuff over at The Anti-Girlfriend.