If not for her mom’s tough love, a superstar gymnast might have called it quits. 

By Molly Knight
Updated April 29, 2016
Robert Maxwell

At the 2012 London Olympics, Gabby Douglas, then 16, became the first African-American woman in history to win gold for the individual all-around in gymnastics. Two years earlier, at 14, Gabby had moved from her family home in Virginia to West Des Moines, Iowa, to train with renowned coach Liang Chow after having lobbied her mom, Natalie Hawkins, for months to allow her to go. Natalie stayed back in Virginia with Gabby’s three siblings. In Iowa, Gabby became so intensely homesick that, months before the 2012 Olympics, she nearly quit. Her mom convinced her to follow through, offering a deal that if Gabby still wanted to quit at the end of the season, she could. Gabby stayed, went to the Olympics, and won two gold medals. This year, at age 20, she approaches the Games already a bona fide superstar.

Real Simple: Natalie, what’s it like watching your daughter in competition?

Natalie Hawkins: It’s an adrenaline rush—exhausting, exhilarating, nerve-racking. When I see her do a little bobble sometimes, I grasp at the air, trying to help her stay on the beam.

Gabby Douglas: I get the same feeling when I’m watching my teammates. You know how much time and sacrifice they put into it, and you just want them to do well, but you’re totally helpless.

RS: What do you think you got from your mom, Gabby?

G.D.: I probably got my athleticism from her and my flexibility.

N.H.: And your good looks, too.

G.D.:  [laughs] Definitely.

RS: Do you like to soar through the air like your daughter, Natalie?

N.H.: The kids are always trying to get me on a roller coaster in the summertime. But watching her is my roller coaster.

G.D.: I got my mom on the balance beam in the gym once. It took, like, 20 minutes to convince her. Wait—it was a low beam. Does that even count?

N.H.: It counts. I’m not getting on that high beam. Why would I want to go four feet up in the air on a bar that’s four inches wide?

RS: You two seem to really enjoy each other.

G.D.: I try to cherish every day I get to spend with my mom.

N.H.: We went without being together for so long [two years, while Gabby trained in Iowa; she now trains in Ohio, still far from home]. My friends are always saying, “How come your kids [ages 27, 22, 21, and 20] always want to hang out with you?” It feels really good to hear that.

To learn more about all Olympic hopefuls, visit teamusa.org. The Olympics begin August 5.