The singular thing I’m most excited for as the elite domestic season begins in the lead-up to the Olympics is Gabby Douglas’ elite comeback. Douglas competed in the 2012 London and 2016 Rio Olympics, becoming the first Black woman to win the Olympic All-Around with her 2012 victory.
Douglas never officially announced retirement, but she stopped competing after the 2016 Rio Olympics. Rumors spread in late 2022 that Douglas had begun training again at the World Olympics Gymnastics Academy in Texas. In February 2023, WOGA Head Coach Valeri Liukin, coach and father of 2008 Olympic All-Around Champion Nastia Liukin, confirmed that Douglas was in fact training at his gym. Just this week, Douglas announced that she is officially set to compete at the Winter Cup at the end of February. There’s now the very real possibility of having the last three Olympic AA champions on the same team for Paris — Suni Lee (2020), Simone Biles (2016) and Gabby Douglas (2012).
Douglas’s comeback was likely inspired, in my opinion, by the elite comeback of Chellsie Memmel at the age of 33. During the pandemic, the 2008 Beijing Olympian and silver medalist began playing around with high-level skills in the gym that she and her family own and operate in Wisconsin. Memmel last competed in 2012, and after she married and had two children. After the birth of her second child, Memmel got into fitness outside the world of gymnastics, especially through long distance swimming. At the 2021 U.S. Championships, Memmel completed a Yurchenko Double Full, a significantly more difficult vault than she used to complete during her ‘prime.’ In May 2022, she was named the technical lead for the U.S. National women's artistic gymnastics team, which ended her career as an athlete — at least for now. Memmel’s elite comeback showed that adult women can match the difficulty of their teenage years, even after a significant break.
The comebacks of Douglas and Memmel represent a new era in women’s gymnastics now that Bela and Martha Károlyi are out of power. I’m reminded of Dominique Moceanu’s attempted elite comeback in 2005-06. Moceanu was the 14-year-old darling of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and a member of the first American team to win a gold medal under the Károlyis’ coaching. Following the Olympics, she went through a period of intense turmoil in her personal life. She wrote about this struggle in her 2012 memoir “Off-Balance,” elaborating upon becoming emancipated from her parents to escape abuse and exploitation and later struggling with drug usage while living and training alone.
After finding more stability by meeting her future husband, who was also a high level gymnast, Moceanu decided to attempt an elite comeback after a five-year hiatus at the then-ancient age of 24. Controversially, despite adequate performances, USA Gymnastics, which was headed by Martha Károlyi, her old coach, did not qualify her for the 2006 National Championships. In her memoir, Moceanu writes about how her comeback was personally shut down by the woman who had coached her to Olympic success 10 years earlier, as USAG changed qualification requirements after the fact. Douglas’ and Memmel’s elite comebacks would have never been possible under Károlyi.
Turning back to Douglas and her gymnastics, it’s very interesting that she is training with Nastia Liukin’s father at WOGA. I was originally surprised because Valeri Liukin is part of the “old guard,” and I wouldn’t have expected him to take on a 28-year-old gymnast who hadn’t trained for 6 years, even if she is a former All-Around Champion. Additionally, Douglas’ former coach Liang Chow trained Valeri Liukin’s daughter’s main rival, Shawn Johnson. But, it actually makes perfect sense. Douglas specialized in highly rated E pirouettes on the uneven bars. Most notably, she specialized in a one-armed Healy pirouette, which is almost exclusively performed by Chinese gymnasts (with the notable exception of American Nastia Liukin). Douglas’ old coach was on the Chinese National Team for over a decade.
Just like Memmel, Douglas has begun to train new elements she didn’t have the last time she competed. Most notably, she posted a video of a new Healy and Ling one-armed pirouette combination, which she has never performed in competition. Nastia Liukin was one of the only American and non-Chinese gymnasts to perform this sort of combination linking one-armed pirouettes together. Valeri Liukin has clearly been using his old training techniques with Douglas.
Stay tuned to see Douglas return to competition at the Winter Cup in a few weeks!