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Why we need Gabby

By Wendy Hilliard, Special to CNN
updated 7:39 AM EDT, Tue August 7, 2012
U.S. gymnast Gabrielle Douglas celebrates after winning the artistic gymnastics women's individual all-around final in London.
U.S. gymnast Gabrielle Douglas celebrates after winning the artistic gymnastics women's individual all-around final in London.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Wendy Hilliard: Gabby Douglas gold medal for all-around gymnastics is highly significant
  • She says it sends a powerful message to young girls that they can seek spectacular goals
  • She--and her single mom--showed the world she was willing to sacrifice to get there
  • Hilliard: By 14, girls drop sports at twice rate of boys. Gabby's example could change that

Editor's note: Wendy Hilliard in 1978 was the first African-American athlete to represent a United States team in rhythmic gymnastics. She is a former president of the Women's Sports Foundation. Last year, she was awarded the Rings of Gold Award from the U.S. Olympic Committee for her work through the Wendy Hilliard Foundation, a nonprofit that has provided free and low-cost gymnastics lessons to more than 10,000 inner-city youth in New York.

(CNN) -- Gabby Douglas winning the all-around gymnastics gold medal in London is over-the-top significant on so many levels.

It's not only that she won the top prize in a dramatic and thrilling competition last week, featuring the top Russian gymnasts. More important is the powerful message Gabby is sending to young girls and women, especially those who are African-American, about doing what it takes to make your dreams happen. Young people need to reach for spectacular goals. This is not a message we hear often enough, and that is why is it so important.

Wendy Hilliard
Wendy Hilliard

Monday may have been not quite as golden a day for Gabby -- she placed eighth in the women's uneven bars final -- but the audience did not seem at all disappointed in her performance; there was anticipation and excitement just to see her compete again. And it did nothing to diminish what she has accomplished; with her all-around victory Thursday, she created one of those iconic Olympic moments that will endure the test of time.

Gabby became the best in her sport in front of the world, and was unapologetic about doing what it took to get her there. Her family's sacrifice, and the trust her mother showed in her daughter's goals, could be a lesson to parents and children everywhere. The story of an African-American single mom and her daughter reaching for greatness, and succeeding, will resonate with a whole new generation.

Dominque Dawes discusses Douglas win
Obama congratulates U.S. gymnasts
Gabby Douglas' mom on her golden future
Gabby's mom: Nervous waiting on scores

I have been an elite athlete, coached an Olympic gymnast and since 1994 have provided free and low-cost gymnastics to over 10,000 young people in Harlem. I know the challenges of gymnastics, especially for minority families. Top-level gymnastics takes an incredible sacrifice from an athlete and her family in endless practice time, constant travel and lots of money.

The fact that Gabby chose at age 14 to move halfway across the country to achieve her goal is a testament to her drive. It was a remarkable decision: According to research by the Women's Sports Foundation, by age 14, girls are dropping out of sports at twice the rate of boys. Gabby has become a key role model who may help reverse this trend.

It is important to not focus on the possible ways to make money from sport. It did not work that way for Gabby Douglas; the appeal of the journey to greatness was already there and it cannot be underestimated. The reasons to participate in sport and fitness and the benefits can't be measured by dollars, unless you count how much it is costing this country to support a generation of overweight, unhealthy, unmotivated and unprepared-for-the-world young people.

Yes, we need Gabby.

Let's face it, you cannot take your eyes off her. When she is competing, her gymnastics is exciting. When she is being interviewed, her energy, love of her family, her sport and her faith together make a compelling impression.

This is an exciting time for women's gymnastics. But it is an even more exciting time for young girls -- all the girls who now have Gabby to look up to.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Wendy Hilliard.

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