The Olympics' Moving Performances
08/08/2012 - 10:15
Steve Lipman

Gabby Douglas probably never studied page 16, side b, of the Babylonian Talmud’s tractate Rosh Hashanah.

But she embodies one of its precepts.

Douglas, of course, is the star of the “Fab Five” U.S. women’s gymnastics team that won a gold medal last week at the Summer Olympics in London; she also captured the individual all-around title.

Rosh Hashanah, of course, is a major part of Gemara, the compilation of rabbinic discussions and rulings that, with Mishnah, comprise the Oral Law that complements the Written Law.

One of the principles cited on Rosh Hashanah 16b is “meshane makom, meshane mazel” – a change in one’s location can bring a change in one’s fortunes. In other words, there is value in making a geographic move, in leaving behind all that is familiar, in challenging oneself, in order to improve one’s lot in life.

Douglas, a high-spirited 16-year-old athlete who has earned the nickname “Flying Squirrel” for her ability and enthusiasm, is living proof of this. A rare African-American competitor in a sport dominated in this country by white athletes and overseas by Eastern Europeans and Orientals, she left her home in Virginia Beach, Vir., two years ago to train in Des Moines, Iowa, with Liang Chow, the Chinese-born gymnastics coach who had prepared Shawn Johnson, a star of the 2008 Summer Games at Beijing, for her success.

For Douglas, a shy teenager, leaving home was an often-painful decision. She saw her mother only four times over the next two years.

Douglas had watched the 2008 Olympics on TV, admired both Johnson’s performances and her coach’s upbeat attitude, and decided that Liang was her ticket to Olympic stardom.

In Iowa she stayed with the Parton family, who are white. They shared Douglas’ Christian faith and interest in gymnastics; they had offered to house a gymnast who needed a place to stay during training.

Mrs. Parton’s mother had recently died.

“God never too something away without filling the hole, without replacing it with something,” Mrs. Parton told The New York Times. “And for us He just happened to replace it with a 16-year-old black girl.”

Douglas quickly fit into the Parton household, becoming the family’s de facto fifth daughter and making quick strides in her gymnastics skills. Afterwards, Bela Karolyi, noted Romanian-born gymnastics coach who now lives in Houston, said he had never seen someone “rising … this quickly ... from an average good gymnast to a fantastic one.”

Douglas was only the most preeminent example of a world-class athlete who had flourished after changing his or her location.

“There is now a stronger flow of athletes to quality coaching, wherever it may be located, The New York Times reported this week in an article about border-crossing athletes.

What these athletes share is their willingness to make sacrifices in order to learn from the best coaches.

In Pirkei Avot, Yehoshua ben Perachyah and Nittai of Arbel advise oseh lecha rav, make for yourself a teacher. The ArtScroll Siddur translates that phrase as “accept a teacher upon yourself”: Be willing to submit to his direction, for without a mentor to respect, a person is directionless.”

Gabby Douglas probably is not familiar with these Mishnaic scholars. But she – and her fellow Olympians who paid a price for greatness – are living proof of their words.

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