LONDON — 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 night, becoming the third straight 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 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.
“I haven’t thought about that,” Douglas said. “I just wanted to seize the moment. You have to learn how to enjoy the moment.”
Her smile alone is enough to dazzle Madison Avenue, and her personality is bigger than she is.
She’s even managed to make Oprah Winfrey cry. Douglas had barely gotten off the medals stand when the talk show maven said on Twitter that she was “so THRILLED for Gabby. Flowing happy tears!!”
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 deadset 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.
“It takes lots of suffering and hardship until you climb to the top,” Karolyi said. “It depends on your character how you take those times.”
As she did in Tuesday night’s team final, Douglas set the tone with the very first event, vault.
Once again doing the difficult Amanar — a roundoff onto the takeoff board, back handspring onto the table and 2.5 twisting somersaults before landing — Douglas took a small hop to the left and then another, putting her dangerously close to the out-of-bounds line. She never looked down, but it was clear she knew how close she was, twisting her upper body to the left to absorb the momentum and keep her legs from moving.
She stayed in place — and in bounds — and her 15.966 gave her a lead she never relinquished.
Komova cut Douglas’ lead in half on uneven bars, where she looks more like a delicate hummingbird as she flies between the bars. Her routine is incredibly difficult, yet she delivers it with such lightness and style. She took a small hop on her dismount, but instantly camouflaged it by thrusting her hands into the air and turning to salute the judges.
When her score of 15.966 was announced, she nodded slightly as she zipped her warm-up jacket all the way to her chin.
Next came balance beam, where Komova and Douglas have struggled. Komova’s fall during team competition at last year’s worlds hurt Russia’s chance of catching the Americans; Douglas might have won the U.S. title if not for a fall on the second day of competition.
With the stakes now higher than ever, both were clutch. Most of Komova’s tricks were landed with confidence, and her sheep jump — where she thrusts her head and arms back while kicking her feet behind her — was exquisite, the soles of her feet brushing her ponytail.
But Douglas did her one better. She brimmed with confidence as she whipped off a series of back handsprings, landing as easily as she had during practice. She knocked out a front somersault with such power the thud of her landing echoed throughout the O2 Arena.
She took a small hop forward on her dismount, but it hardly mattered. The look on her face said it all: Yeah, I got this.
“She demonstrated she is an Olympic champion,” Chow said. “She dealt with a tough job and I think she did very well.”
Her score of 15.5 extended her lead over Komova to more than three-tenths of a point going into the final rotation, floor exercise.
And so the gold came down to the two of them after 2010 world champion Aliya Mustafina and American Aly Raisman fell out of the running after errors on balance beam.
Though Chow told Douglas not to look at the scoreboard, she admitted she couldn’t resist. A few times.
“After vault,” she said. “And bars. And beam. And floor.”
“She’s not a good listener,” Chow chimed in, smiling.
Turns out knowing where she stood didn’t hurt her performance.
Douglas gets more air on her tumbling passes than the NBA’s Carmelo Anthony, whom she and her teammates met the other day, and she lands them without a wobble. Unlike most gymnasts, who may as well use elevator music it matter so little, her “We Speak No Americano” is as big a part of her routine as any trick. Every pass is landed on a beat of the peppy techno music, and don’t be surprised if kids at the clubs rip off her dance moves.
She had the crowd clapping — even the hard-to-please Karolyi was moving and grooving — and she threw the judges more than one playful grin.
“I love this routine,” she said. “I can express myself.”
Her score of 15.033 meant Komova needed a 15.36 or better to win. When she didn’t come close, Douglas grabbed herself another gold.
The move, sacrifices, doubts, tears — all of it — had been worth it.
“I don’t ever recall anybody this quickly rising from an average good gymnast to a fantastic one,” Karolyi said. “She’s just so much a nice girl and so hardworking and dedicated. … She just loves gymnastics and she really loves to be on the top.”