OUT OF LEFT FIELD
Above Left, U.S. Judo Gold Medalist KAYLA HARRISON; above right: U.S. All-Around Gymnastics Gold Medalist GABBY DOUGLAS.
Our Olympic Focus: A Pair of 'Feel-Good' Stories
By STAN ISAACS
At a time when world developments outside the Olympic arenas are depressing, the Olympics provide feel-good stories. Golden youths provide thrills and chills to the spectators in London and to the multitude around the world watching on television. Never mind for a while at least Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, the dubious economy and the fustian that stain the political dialogue.
Two young American women lit up the first week of the Olympics by triumphing over adversity in winning gold medals. Kayla Harrison won the first ever U.S. gold medal in judo. The Great Gabby, aka The Flying Squirrel, aka Gabby Douglas won the all around event in the Little Women competition that is gymnastics.
Harrison won her medal in the 78-kilogram judo class. She beat the No. 1 woman from Brazil and in the final she twice threw a British competitor who had the home crowd cheering her. Even if you didnt understand the nuances of judo technique you sensed something special in this young woman.
Harrison, now 22, was abused by her coach starting when she was 13 years old. .
She did not shy from telling her story when she met reporters after her victory. Its no secret, she said, that I was sexually abused by my former coach. The coach, Daniel Doyle, insinuated himself into her family; sexual contact led to intercourse over a period of years on international trips until she was 16.
She then revealed the abuse to a friend and her mother, who smashed the coachs car windows with a baseball bat. The coach was found guilty of illicit sexual conduct involving a 13-year-old girl, sentenced to 10 years in prison.
In the wake of the Penn State scandal and other sexual abuse revelations, Harrison said she felt it necessary to speak out so that others in her position could take heart.
The New York Times reporter, Campbell Robertson, wrote, She has a story she is not afraid to tell, a story that is jarring even for a sports press that can be nearly unhinged in its pursuit of the next inspirational tale. The questions she fielded at the end of her match about what she was thinking on the podium, about what the medal means to her, about how this compares to her own struggles, could be wince-inducing in their coy inquiries into such a painful topic.
After the match, Harrison, talked about her future plans. She may take the test to become a firefighter. She also wants to go to college and lead a normal life, to make up for the things she missed when she was dedicated to becoming a judo champion.
She said, I think itd be pretty cool to be a kid.
Douglas is the black 16-year-old gymnast from Virginia Beach, Va. who left her family to work with a coach and live with a white family in Des Moines to pursue her Olympic dream. She had to leave her mother, two sisters and a brother--and two dogs-to join Missy and Travis Parton and their three daughters so that she could be with Liang Chow, a highly regarded Chinese coach.
The Partons had decided to open their home to one of Chows top gymnasts who could not afford housing. When Douglas came the family made her feel at home, giving her free rein of the house, buying her a pool pass, taking her to weddings and even teaching her how to drive. She relished being a big sister to the Parton girls.
She did not fail to notice that she was one of the few black people in town. Often she was the only black gymnast at high-level competitions. That uneasiness did not last, The New York Times report said. Soon she and the Partons began joking about her uniqueness. She told them, Look, black person down the street. I told you there was at least one other black person in Iowa.
Douglas saw her mother only four times in two years. That is the way it is for families of precocious gymnasts, figure skaters, tennis players. For every Douglas, though, there are many who fall by the wayside.
Douglas blossomed into a bubbly young woman with the Partons and as a gymnast with coach Chow. She outscored Jordyn Wieber, the reigning world champion in a competition last March, and then beat Wieber at the Olympic Trials last month.
Her dazzling smile as she went about her business in the all-around title seemingly lit up the city of London. Photos of her in the air with legs seemingly attached to each other end to end in a eye-catching split over the balance beam made the front pages of several newspapers.
She led from start to finish of the all around. She captivated the crowd with each exercise. The crowd screamed, Go, Gabby before her final event even started, dancing and clapping in the stands. Sam Mellinger of the Kansas City Star wrote, The arena shared one of the Olympics great moments-thousands of fans and an exceptional girl, all fully aware that the gold medal was hers, all fully embracing a floor routine that essentially turned into a victory lap.
She walked off the floor the first gymnast to win both individual and team gold at the same Olympics.
As she competed and as she stood on the top step of the podium during the playing of the anthem, her two families huddled together and enjoyed, as few families have, their special moment.
©2012 by Stan Isaacs. The Stan Isaacs caricature is ©2001 by Jim Hummel. The photo of Kayla Harrison is courtesy of Sports Illustrated. This column first posted Aug. 6, 2012.
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