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A legendary coach applauds Gabby Douglas as she aims for the Paris 2024 Olympics

Olympic gold medalist Gabby Douglas was 16 when she turned in a historic performance in London. Now she wants to return, eyeing the 2024 Paris Olympics. Douglas is seen here in 2020.
Rich Polk
Getty Images for IMDb
Olympic gold medalist Gabby Douglas was 16 when she turned in a historic performance in London. Now she wants to return, eyeing the 2024 Paris Olympics. Douglas is seen here in 2020.

Updated July 14, 2023 at 4:35 PM ET

When Gabby Douglas took the London Olympics by storm in 2012, she noted that an elite gymnast's career usually spans two Olympics. But now Douglas wants to upend those norms, and vie for a spot at the Olympics in 2024.

Douglas announced her plan via Instagram, saying she wants to find the joy again in a sport that she still loves, and compete in Paris.

"There's so much to be said but for now," she wrote as she posted images of herself soaring above a balance beam, "let's do this."

As the announcement rippled through gymnastics, high-profile figures said they're excited to watch Douglas compete again.

Former gymnastics coach Valorie Kondos Field told NPR she was "thrilled" to hear the news that Douglas is returning.

"You see this in a lot of other sports, but it is unprecedented in gymnastics," said Kondos Field, known to generations of gymnasts as "Miss Val" from her decades as the head coach at UCLA, where she won national championships and produced Olympic stars.

Surprise return comes after taking time to heal

"You know, I coached in college for 37 years and one thing that always was sad to me is that gymnasts' careers were over so quickly, partly because their bodies go through so much at such a young age," Kondos Field said.

By the time elite gymnasts reach college age, she said, "they really need time to heal."

"When an athlete is able to step away and heal comprehensively — mentally, emotionally, physically — and then they're excited to come back to the sport, I think it's wonderful."

As for what type of training and form Douglas will need to achieve to compete again, Kondos Field said Douglas must be judicious in her workload. As gymnasts get older, she said, coaches must ensure the athletes' bodies don't go through unnecessary wear and tear through too many repetitions.

Whether or not Douglas makes it back to Team USA and lands a spot on the Olympic squad, Kondos Field praised her courage for trying — and for returning out of love for her sport.

"There's nothing else in life that compares to flipping and twisting," she said. "How cool is that?"

Teenagers have dominated Olympic gymnastics

Douglas was just 16 when she made history in London as the first African-American gymnast to win Olympic gold in the individual all-around. After that feat, she told NPR that her goal was to compete in just one more Olympics, in Rio.

To compete in Paris, Douglas will have to swim against a strong tide — for years, Olympic gymnastics has been dominated by teenagers. The last time a female gymnast over age 20 won gold in the landmark all-around event was in 1972.

Douglas acknowledged that a comeback at her age – she will be 28 when the Paris Summer Olympics begin – will be "a huge task." But she also said she's excited to get back to work.

It was Douglas' work ethic and ethereal talent that propelled her to international fame in 2012, when she anchored the U.S. squad in securing the team gold and then surpassed everyone to claim gold in the individual all-around event, winning fans with her grace, power, and brilliant smile.

Asked if she would advise Douglas to focus on a single event or vie for a spot in the all-around event, Kondos Field replied, "I would say, let's make an all-around assault, Gabby — let's go for it.

"Take your chips and go all in, let's see what we've got."

Team USA could enjoy a glut of seasoned talent

At the London Games, Douglas' teammates included Aly Raisman, McKayla Maroney, Jordyn Wieber, and Kyla Ross. In Rio, Douglas watched as Simone Biles emerged as an all-time great. Now both of them are vying to defy the odds and return to the top of their sport, as Biles announced her own comeback last month.

To punch their tickets to France, they'll have to perform well against stiff competition within the U.S. ranks. Other Paris hopefuls include reigning Olympic all-around champion Sunisa Lee and her fellow medalists Jordan Chiles and Jade Carey, along with Konnor McClain, the 2022 U.S. all-around champ, and Shilese Jones — who, like Douglas, excels on the uneven bars.

Also worth noting: At 20, Lee is mounting her own return to the sport, after stepping away due to issues with her kidneys. By next summer, she'll be 21.

"You look at the possibility of this next Olympic team for the U.S., and they could all be like 21 or older," Kondos Field said.

But age, as they say, is just a number. If Douglas and Biles want inspiration, they could look to Oksana Chusovitina — who at 46 set a record as the oldest Olympic gymnast in history when she competed at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021.

Douglas' former teammates are cheering her on

Biles and Douglas are part of a generation of exceptional gymnasts whose careers were marked by gravity-defying performances, even as their lives were thrown off-kilter by sexual abuse perpetrated by former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar. Many of them, including Douglas and Biles, have spoken out about the continuing mental health struggles they face.

Douglas announced her comeback after taking a prolonged break from social media, a time she says she used for deep reflection. In the end, she said, she "found myself back where it all began."

The positive responses to Douglas' comeback news include comments from her former teammates, saying they're pulling for her.

"Amen girl. Let's go," Maroney wrote. "Cheering you on for life."

When asked about decorated athletes like Douglas seizing a chance to leave the sport on their own terms after what they endured, Kondos Field quickly agreed.

They can choose to step away, she said, "feeling joyful about the sport and having good memories about the sport."

"They deserve it."

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.