When gymnast Gabby Douglas flipped her way to the top of the medal podium in London this summer, she instantly had the world at her fingertips. In one night, the 16-year-old Virginia Beach, Va., native became a bonafide superstar, with endorsement deals and sponsorship offers flying in faster than her uneven bars dismount. But what many people did not know is that Gabby’s history-making Olympic gold nearly didn’t happen, as the financial struggle that comes with helping an extraordinary child pursue her dreams was almost too much to take on.
In January, facing exorbitant expenses, Natalie Hawkins, Gabby’s mom, applied for our Travel & Training Fund grant on behalf of Gabby, with hopes of alleviating some financial pressure. Before we selected the class of 2012 Travel & Training Fund grantees, Gabby competed and won big in London. She learned of her grant award upon her return from the Olympics and has since decided to give the funds back to the WSF so that another athlete has the chance to pursue her dreams.
We sat down with Natalie to talk about her family’s journey, their life-changing experience in London and why it’s so important that she teaches her daughter to give back.
Women’s Sports Foundation: Raising children is expensive, especially helping them pursue an extraordinary talent. Talk about the sacrifices you all had to make to enable Gabby’s success. As you applied for a grant on behalf of your daughter, how did you anticipate using the funds to offset some of the costs involved in her pursuits?
Natalie Hawkins: At first, it started as a recreation class, so there really was no sacrifice aside from the time commitment. But then, as Gabby began to excel and move through the levels, the cost began to increase and I had to pick up a lot of extra overtime work at my job as a recovery specialist. The more I got people to take care of their financial responsibilities, the more lucrative my job was. So I worked really hard to find the balance. And even though I had to work all the shifts, work really hard, I loved that fact. It was such a great feeling of an accomplishment to be able to provide for my kids and support all their respective sports.
But there were times when it got extremely difficult. My job had cutbacks and I wasn’t making as much money as I had been. That’s really when the financial pressure and strain began to overwhelm me — it was very rough at times. I felt like I wouldn’t be able to take the pressure of keeping Gabby in gymnastics and also help support my other children. I knew she had a dream and I wanted to persevere and in that, I wanted to show Gabby that she could also persevere through adversity.
In gymnastics, it’s very expensive to support the travel and training costs. Not only do you have to pay for the coach and the gymnast, but the parent also has to pay for themselves if they want to be able to go to meets with their child. My thought was that if I could apply for a scholarship or grant of some kind, it would help take care of some of Gabby’s training and would alleviate some of the financial pressure on me.
WSF: Describe the moment when your daughter became the first African-American All-Around Olympic gymnastics champion. Did that historic moment wash away all your struggles?
NH: I say it all the time. In that moment, when I was crying watching her get her medal, I was remembering all of the struggles, all of the hard times, everything Gabby had overcame. Honestly at times, it really felt like we weren’t going to make it. When she was standing on top of that podium, I was overcome with such a sense of pride and I was so overwhelmed with the thoughts of “what if.” What if we had given up, what if we hadn’t pressed forward…we wouldn’t be in that moment. It was worth it. It made us stronger and strengthened our family’s resolve so much more than I ever thought it could be strengthened. So it taught us a very valuable lesson but the biggest lesson of all was to never give up and never quit.
WSF: After returning from London, you learned that Gabby had been awarded our Travel & Training grant.. Instead of using it herself, she has decided to donate the money back to the Fund us so she can help fuel another young athlete’s dream. As her mother, describe your pride in seeing your daughter give back and inspire others.
NH: It’s extremely important to give back. That’s what we feel like it’s really all about. One of the lessons that I’ve tried to instill in my children is that the world is bigger than just you living in it and you reaping all the benefits for yourself. It’s about seeing what you can do to be a blessing for someone or how you can help enrich someone else’s life.
When I see Gabby give back, I am filled with such a tremendous amount of pride. She listened to the message, she saw it and she is now incorporating it into her life. It’s really a big focal point with her that she wants people to be inspired and she wants to give back because so many people gave selflessly to her to help her achieve her dreams. So to see her do that, it just fills me with such a beautiful sense of pride.
WSF: What advice do you have for other parents who have a child with a dream?
NH: There are two things pieces of advice I want to share:
My biggest thing with Gabby was trying to make our home a haven. I think that’s so important for any athlete. A child needs a place where they can come home and relax and kind of get away from it all — to regroup and refresh. It’s so important so they don’t get burnt out.
Also, encourage your children and have faith in their talent and abilities. Don’t let any adversity or any crisis keep them from pursing what they want in life. Be sure that you’re supportive and never overbearing. Nurture while encouraging them to pursue their dreams but always remember that sometimes they need a little downtime.
WSF: How can you encourage other families to get involved with the Women’s Sports Foundation?
NH: The WSF is an amazing foundation. For anyone who is involved in the sports community, I would encourage them to check out your work and what you have to offer. Find a way – whatever it is, volunteering your time, giving your resources –and get involved. If we can help invest in children’s dreams and help them reach for the stars, there really is no other greater joy than that.