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Gymnast Douglas, her brother united by promise
Gymnast Douglas, her brother united by promise

By Larry Rubama
The Virginian-Pilot
© April 27, 2013

VIRGINIA BEACH

Johnathan Douglas made a promise to his sister shortly after the 2012 Summer Olympics.

Douglas, a Landstown High School sprinter, and his sister locked pinkies. He promised to try to make the U.S. Olympic track team for the 2016 Summer Games in Brazil. She pledged she would do the same in gymnastics.

It may seem like a harmless - if far-fetched - agreement. Unless your sister is Gabby Douglas, the first American gymnast to win individual all-around and team gold medals in the same Olympics.

"She told me, 'You really can make the Olympic team if you really try,'" said Johnathan, who is 14 months older than Gabby. "And she made me give her a pinky promise."

Johnathan knows making the U.S. Olympic track team is unlikely, especially because he just started running track last year. But that's not going to keep him from trying.

Johnathan, an 18-year-old senior, has become one of the Beach District's top sprinters, putting up some of the best times in the state.

Last season, he failed to qualify for the finals in the 100- and 200-meter runs at the Beach District championships. But two days after his season ended, he was at the track to practice.

"I remember seeing him at practice, and I asked him, 'You don't have to be here,' " Landstown track coach Tom Anderson said. "And he told me, 'Coach, I want to be here.' And he started crying. I knew then and there that he was going to be one of our guys this season."

Johnathan trained tirelessly at school and on his own to improve - and his diligence has paid off.

He has posted personal-best times of 10.71 seconds in the 100 and 21.76 in the 200, ranked second and sixth, respectively, in the state this season according to MileStat.com. His best times coming into this season were 11.4 and 23.2.

Anderson has encouraged Johnathan to be himself and not to let his sister's fame define him.

"We have a saying with him: 'Johnathan, do Johnathan,' " Anderson said. "I tell him to be proud of his sister and her accomplishments, but he's living his own life. When your sister is a world-renowned athlete and has been able to achieve what she achieved, that's a big responsibility to have to live up to. And he's handled it well."

That's advice the Douglases' mother, Natalie Hawkins, has continued to reiterate to all of her children. Her eldest daughter, Arielle, 24, was a gymnast and cheerleader. Joyelle, 19, was a figure skater.

"No sibling wants to live in the shadow of a celebrity sibling," Hawkins said by phone in Atlanta during a break from her busy schedule as Gabby's manager. "So I told them all, whatever you want to do, strive at it and be great at it. Just don't turn in a mediocre performance if you're going to show up."

Hawkins and Gabby have a hectic schedule crisscrossing the country. Last week, they were in Los Angeles, Phoenix, Cleveland and Atlanta.

Hawkins expects their schedule to slow down next month when Gabby returns to the gym to prepare for the 2016 Olympics. Meanwhile, Johnathan has kept his mother from worrying about him, and his older sisters, Arielle and Joyelle, are keeping tabs on him.

"I'm all upset, and he'll say, 'Mom, it's OK. Go handle my sister. I'll be fine, and I'll make you proud,' " Hawkins said. "That gives me peace when I go out on the road because he gets it."

Johnathan embraces his sister's fame. After all, he has benefitted from her success, too. The highlight? Watching his two favorite sprinters - Justin Gatlin and Tyson Gay - compete at this past summer's London Olympics.

"It's so inspiring and really incredible what kind of impact she has made to the world," Johnathan said. "But me and my sister don't compete against each other. We actually bring the best out in each other."

Gabby, in a telephone interview, said she and Johnathan have "always been two peas in a pod."

"When I have a tough day," she said, "he'd always put me in a good mood."

Gabby has been busy since the Olympics, appearing on TV, endorsing a McDonald's breakfast sandwich and communicating with her 776,000 Twitter followers.

When she's home, though, she makes time to see her brother run.

"She's kind of incognito," Johnathan said, laughing. "She tries to sneak in."

While Gabby enjoys watching her brother compete, she said, it makes her nervous - just as she made her family nervous during the Olympics.

"Now it's the opposite," Johnathan said, "and I'm in the hot seat."

Johnathan has some important competitions ahead, and he's hoping to excel when it's time for the district, region and Group AAA state championships.

But Gabby is glad he's off and running, even if it doesn't result in an Olympic trip together to Brazil.

"I'm just so proud of him," she said. "It definitely brings me joy and happiness because I know, at the end of the day, that he did his best. That's all that matters."

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