Just 14, Gabby Douglas pleaded with her mother to let her move cross country, certain a new coach could help her get to the Olympics.
Not two years after setting out on her own, Douglas beat Russia’s Viktoria Komova for the all-around title Thursday, becoming the third consecutive U.S. athlete to win gymnastics’ biggest prize and the first African-American to do so. It was her second gold medal of the London Games, coming two nights after she and her “Fierce Five” teammates gave the United States its first Olympic team title since 1996.
“It feels amazing to be the Olympic champion,” Douglas said.
The Americans have been looking for their “next Mary Lou” for almost three decades, and they’ve got her in the 16-year-old Douglas. Throw in her adorable “Flying Squirrel” nickname and sweet backstory, and Douglas’ two gold medals certainly won’t be her only riches.
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“I haven’t thought about that,” Douglas said. “I just wanted to seize the moment. You have to learn how to enjoy the moment.”
Coach Liang Chow told Douglas the gold was hers after an electrifying floor routine, but she had to wait another five minutes until it was official. That’s because Komova, runner-up at last year’s world championships, was still to come.
Komova’s floor routine was impressive, as well. Finished, she stood at the center of the arena staring intently at the scoreboard, fingertips pressed to her lips, teammate Aliya Mustafina rubbing her shoulder. When the final standings flashed, Komova dropped her head and headed the sidelines, tears falling.
Mustafina and Aly Raisman finished with identical scores of 59.566, but the Russian got the bronze on a tiebreak. The lowest scores for both gymnasts were dropped, and the remaining three were totaled. That gave Mustafina a total of 45.933 and Raisman 45.366.
“I’m still upset because I could have been gold and I didn’t get it,” said Komova, her silver medal buried in the pocket of her warm-up jacket.
Douglas, meanwhile, was grinning ear to ear. Up in the stands, her mother, Natalie Hawkins, embraced her children and then shared a long hug with Missy Parton, whose family took Douglas in after she moved to West Des Moines, Iowa, and now counts her as one of their own.
“She inspires me,” Hawkins said, referring to her champion. “To keep it together in that moment when it meant so much says a lot about her.”
When Douglas first told her mother she wanted to move to train with Chow, who coached Shawn Johnson, Hawkins was dead set against it. A single mother, she couldn’t uproot her family, and there was no way she was going to allow her youngest child go off by herself.
But Douglas’ two older sisters lobbied on her behalf, giving their mother a list of reasons why Gabby should be allowed to move. The only reason to stay: They would miss her.
The move was hard on Douglas, too. Though the Partons treat her like their fifth daughter and are now so close to Hawkins they may as well be related, Douglas missed her family and her dogs. As recently as January, she second-guessed her decision. But she also knew Chow and his wife, Li Zhuang, could get her where she wanted to go.
“We had to work with her consistency,” said Martha Karolyi, coordinator of the U.S. women’s team. “She had the skills. She had the lightness. She was flying all the time, but sometimes she would get out of control. But we worked on that, and it really helped that Chow has this very nice temper, that very calmly he was able to make the corrections and strongly spell out the expectations to her.”
Like 10 days ago.
Douglas has made a stunning rise this year, going from someone who couldn’t stay on a piece of equipment at last year’s U.S. championships to beating world champ Jordyn Wieber at last month’s Olympic trials. She was now one of the favorites, and being in the spotlight became a little too much to take.
“I think she was a little bit scared of what’s ahead of her. That’s big pressure,” Chow said.
Known for his easy smile and warm personality, Chow pulled Douglas aside for a pep talk. Whatever he said worked, because she’s been unflappable since she first took the floor in London.