A crowd of over 700 SRU students and Slippery Rock community members sat in the Smith Student Center Ballroom Thursday evening awaiting the arrival of two-time Olympic gold medalist Gabby Douglas, courtesy of the University Program Board (UPB).
Following a brief announcement from UPB’s Director of Speakers Nina Bracci introducing the young athlete as well as the moderator for the evening Dr. Nick Artman, assistant professor of communication, Douglas glided onstage, a big smile on her face. She hugged Bracci, and took her seat across from Artman, joking about the fact that she couldn’t believe she was in a room full of Steelers fans: Douglas prefers the Patriots, and later commented that the most famous contact in her phone is Tom Brady.
After receiving a hug from the talented gymnast, Bracci left the stage, finally able to stop, relax, and breathe after her day of chaos. Preparations for the event began in October when UPB sent out a survey questioning the student body about who should be brought to speak. When Douglas won the poll, Bracci immediately began planning and marketing, a process she said has been a lot of fun.
“We’ve worked so hard to put this together,” Bracci said. “Every single day, I was in the office marketing and planning things, so the best part [about tonight] was just taking a second to look out and see all the people that came. It was very humbling.”
Bracci’s Thursday started with Douglas pulling up in a van, getting the gymnast settled in the green room, and preparing herself for her first big event as Director of Speakers. She said she was very nervous before the event started, but Douglas calmed her down, reminding her that everyone was nervous, but it was going to be great. Great it was, according to Bracci and Artman, as well as President of UPB Mallory Milberger.
“It was one of those events that really just makes you believe in the good of people,” Artman said. “ I think it was just one of those ones that a lot of people in the room won’t forget.”
Artman opened his conversation with Douglas by telling her how excited he was, but reminding her that they’re “on the same playing field.”
“I did a cartwheel once in high school, so we’re kind of the same,” Artman joked.
The conversation continued, and the two discussed how Douglas first got introduced to gymnastics when she was very young and her older sister was learning and competing. As the youngest child in her family, Douglas’s mother didn’t want her doing gymnastics, especially competitively, as her older sister had seen some serious injuries like sprained and broken joints and bones. By the time she was 8 or 9, however, Douglas was in gymnastics classes just like her sister, and the rest is history.
When she did finally get involved, the Douglas family became a huge support system for her, even when she was away. Douglas said that if she was feeling particularly down or having a bad day, she could video call her family and they would always be there for her.
“It’s a full-time job, a full-time commitment, and everyone has their ups and downs,” Douglas said. “It was never just up for me.”
Douglas and Artman continued their conversation, talking about women in sports, the dynamics between her Olympic teammates, and her current life. Douglas said she is personally taking some time off and not training, and she’s getting a chance to do things she normally wouldn’t, like horseback riding, martial arts training, and acting classes. Her hopes for her first acting gig are to be part of the next Black Panther movie.
When discussing her teammates and how they deal with each other for such long periods of constant togetherness, Douglas said it’s like a family; sure, after some time, they got annoyed with one another, but that’s family. In the end, Douglas said they were always able to work as one.
“You need to be one on the floor, and we were,” Douglas said.
When their conversation was over, Bracci came back onstage to open up the floor for members of the audience to ask questions. After being asked the classic, “Do you have a boyfriend?” and “Do you want to go to the bar later?” both of which warranted a big laugh from the audience, Douglas shared with everyone how she deals with nerves.
“I used to hate pressure, but now, I embrace it,” Douglas said. “Pressure makes diamonds.”
She also said her mom, who came with her to Slippery Rock and sat on the left side of the room, was her biggest role model and always told her to just keep fighting, and to always head straight through the door when it came to what she wanted to do. Later, a young girl in the audience, who is a competitive gymnast herself, told Douglas she was her number one inspiration and asked her to sign her leotard, which Douglas did with a smile.
When Bracci closed the Q&A, Douglas headed out into the hallway to take pictures with all of her fans. After a day of chaos, nerves, and the possibility of everything going wrong, Bracci could finally breathe and revel in her accomplishments.
“So in this kind of business, a lot of things can go wrong, so it’s kinda just ‘go with the flow,’” Bracci said. “I get up on stage, I talk, and I let the rest just play itself out. And it did; people got to ask a bunch of questions, a little girl got an autograph from her idol and that just made her whole life. It’s a lot but it’s really rewarding.”
Keep updated on UPB and their activities and events as the year goes on by following them on social media @SRUPB.