By Mike Mahon
DES MOINES, IOWA — Iowa holds a special place in the heart of gymnast Gabrielle (Gabby) Douglas. The feeling is mutual with more than 5,000 fans showing up to give her a heroes’ welcome at the Knapp Center on the campus of Drake University Saturday, marking one of the largest Olympic homecomings in the United States
Douglas was one of five Olympians with Iowa ties who returned home for the public celebration.
With American flags in hand, Iowans came out to cheer and thank Douglas; gold medalist free style wrestler Jake Varner; two-time Olympic hurdler Lolo Jones from Des Moines Roosevelt High School; archer Miranda Leek, a graduate of West Des Moines Dowling Catholic High School; and runner Lisa Uhl, a native of Fort Dodge, Iowa. The two-hour program consisted of video highlights, interviews with the athletes, music, dancing and a few surprises. The athletes took the stage, one by one, while Iowa Governor Terry Branstad declared it “Iowa Olympian Day.”
The event brought tears to some and smiles to all, making memories for the athletes and inspiring the next generation of Iowa Olympians.
The Olympians were overwhelmed by the support from the crowd who saved their biggest ovation for Douglas.
Hundreds of fans lined Forest Avenue two hours before doors opened for the 11 a.m. event.
Varner and Douglas aren’t native Iowans, but you wouldn’t have known it by the welcome back to Iowa party. They each took different paths to Iowa. Douglas moved to West Des Moines, Iowa, from Virginia Beach. Va., two years ago to train at Chow’s Gymnastics with coach Liang Chow. Varner, a native of Bakersfield, Calif., attended Iowa State where he won 2009 and 2010 NCAA wrestling titles at 197 pounds before becoming the sixth Cyclone wrestler to win an Olympic gold medal.
Douglas captivated the world and made history by becoming the first U.S. gymnast ever to earn gold medals in the all-around and team competitions at the same Olympics. She was the last Olympian to appear on the stage at the homecoming reception after a video recapped her journey to the Olympics. As expected, Douglas captured the hearts of the crowd with frequent cheers and applause during her appearance in which she revealed it was during the U.S. Olympic Trials that she thought she could win the gold medal at the Olympics.
“At the Trials it clicked in my head that I really had a shot at this so I went back in the gym and polished up my skills,” said Douglas, who had spent the past week making coast-to-coast national TV appearances. “When I headed to London I was ready and so well prepared.”
Iowa Lt. Governor Kim Reynolds gave a surprise to Douglas, presenting her with a proclamation saluting her as an honorary citizen of Iowa.
“I’m proud to be an Iowan,” beamed Douglas, who capped off the day later by welcoming national talk show host Oprah Winfrey to her West Des Moines residence for her show “Next Chapter” which will air an interview on Sunday (Aug. 26). “It (Iowa) is a second home for me and I love it so much. I love the atmosphere and people. I feel honored. I’m so glad I can give back to Iowa now.”
Chow, who coached both Douglas and Shawn Johnson (2008) to Olympic gold, also was recognized before the crowd along with Johnson. Douglas and Chow embraced prior to an earlier news conference, marking their first meeting since the coach flew back to Des Moines on Aug. 8.
“That was so exciting to come to see him, and I miss him so much,” said Douglas. “I remember even yesterday I was Googling pictures of Gabby Douglas and Chow, and him hugging me and me hugging him.” Douglas couldn’t say enough about her experience of participating in their first Olympics. “I had so much fun,” said Douglas. “Words can’t describe it. It has been an amazing ride and journey.”
Jones said she became an instant admirer of how Douglas handled the media spotlight during the Olympics. “Gabby did a great job and is definitely a role model,” said Jones, who was fourth in the women’s 100 hurdles. “I was already picking up stuff with how she was dealing with (it), like how to handle my own kind of controversies. She didn’t need any advice from me.”
Douglas said she plans on remaining in West Des Moines to continue training for another Olympic berth.
“I’m not going anywhere,” said Douglas. “Nothing has changed. Iowa is my home. My future plans are to get more international experience. I love competing for Team USA. I’m so young and fresh. I think I still have a couple more tricks under my belt.”
Douglas will focus attention in less than two weeks on the Kellogg’s Tour of Gymnastics Champions that will visit 40 cities from Sept. 8-Nov. 18 including an Oct. 12 stop in Des Moines.
Following the assembly, the Olympians posted for pictures and signed autographs for youngsters associated with Make-A-Wish Foundation, the Iowa Special Olympics, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Iowa, Juvenile Diabetes Foundation, Variety Club of Iowa, and Character Counts in Iowa. Hy-Vee Food Stores, which sponsored the event, donated $25,000 to the Special Olympics of Iowa in the name of each Olympian.