Gabby Douglas Taking Home More Than Gold, by Djana Milton

At the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London, as American athletes are locked in a fierce battle for medals with China, chapters are closing on some household names such as Michael Phelps while youngsters who go by Missy, Rebecca and Gabby make their entrance.

Despite all the talent on display, surprisingly, the national conversation centers on hair.

This year’s gymnastics team is dubbed the “Fabulous Five.” Sixteen years have passed since America last fielded a squad with as much depth and promise this year’s group brought. All-around gold medal champion Gabby Douglas was a mere toddler when the “Magnificent Seven” left Atlanta in 1996 sporting their golden hardware.

In the ensuing years, each member of 1996’s “Magnificent Seven” squad completed high school, and all but one earned a baccalaureate degrees at a college or university. Those with children were married before giving birth. Many are entrepreneurs and several hold advanced degrees. They now work in fields ranging from medicine to journalism to health and fitness.

These are not surprising outcomes for athletes — must less those of the elite variety. Donna Lopiano, executive director of the Women’s Sports Foundation, sums up the benefits of sports for girls: Greater confidence levels, higher self-esteem, and a better self image.

Female athletes are less likely to be involved in an unintended pregnancy, less likely to take drugs and engage in other high-risk behaviors and more likely to stay in school. The health benefits are tremendous and include a lower risk of breast cancer and osteoporosis.

At 16, Gabby Douglas is a world-class athlete who looks the part from her head to toe. Her medal-winning performances to date are marvels of wonder — from sky-high, laid-out flips with twists to intricate bar and balance routines.

Most impressive of all, however, as with others of her caliber, is the mental fortitude Gabby demonstrates through setting difficult goals and achieving them.

Sometimes, in the course of taking the gymnastics world by storm, Gabby’s hair gets a little messy. Stray strands defy their barrettes, and her ponytail becomes saturated with sweat that is the expected product of physically exerting oneself at “flying squirrel” levels.

Those who focus on Gabby’s hair miss the point of what she is accomplishing. It should not be at all surprising that the young lady’s hair isn’t perfect much less stay in place at all. The only thing Gabby needs from her hair when she steps onto a gymnastics mat is for it not to interfere with her acrobatics. Remember Dorothy Hamill’s famous bob at the 1976 Winter Olympics?

But more important than Gabby’s medals is what life is likely to contain for her when her competitive days are over. Although most of us are not privy to her long-terms goals, there are aspects of her future we can anticipate: She is unlikely to be a contributor to the 72 percent out of wedlock birth rate among black Americans, the nearly 50 percent high school dropout rate or the 29 percent of black female victims of domestic violence.

This is because, as cited in Nike’s 1995 pro-sports “If You Let Me Play” commercial and what the WSF’s Lopiano point out, athletes such as Gabby tend to be more likely to:

* like themselves and have self-confidence;

* suffer less depression;

* leave an abusive relationship;

* avoid an unplanned pregnancy and

* learn what it means to be strong.

And, dare I add, sometimes have messy hair.

Gabby Douglas is an outstanding representative of the United States of America and an inspiration to all young girls who may one day take a stab at daring to defy the laws of gravity.

Those who criticize her hair might benefit themselves from a turn in the gym. In the course of doing so, they might also learn to like themselves.

Refreshingly, Gabby Douglas is famous for doing virtually everything right. That her hair is sometimes as free-spirited as she is purported to be only adds that much more to her charm and the brightness of her star power.

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Djana Milton, a member of the Project 21 black leadership network, is a software engineer, a product of Catholic schools and a classically-trained musician, pilot, and former athlete. Comments may be sent to [email protected].

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