ABOVE PHOTO: Gabby Douglas,
By Nancy Armour
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.
Puts her in a special category, too. Mary Lou Retton, Carly Patterson and Nastia Liukin are the only other Americans to win the Olympic all-around gold.
The Americans have been looking for their “next Mary Lou” since she won in 1984, and now 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 to 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.”
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.”