LONDON — Perhaps her destiny was in the anagram. Rearrange her last name and it comes out USAGOLD. No other American gymnast ever has collected an Olympic gold medal in both the team and individual competition. And no other African-American has won the all-around, which determines the world’s best performer.
“My mom told me, you can inspire a nation,” said Gabrielle Douglas after she’d made the biggest splash at the Games since Mary Lou Retton in 1984 and gotten her face on a Kellogg’s cornflakes box.
Now, with Monday’s apparatus final on uneven bars and Tuesday’s on balance beam, the 16-year-old Virginia native has a chance to be the first female gymnast to win four gold medals at one Games since Czech immortal Vera Caslavska in 1968.
Five months ago Douglas ranked no better than third among US contenders, behind world champion Jordyn Wieber and team captain Aly Raisman, who’d placed fourth. But when Wieber failed to qualify for the all-around and Raisman wobbled on beam, the “Flying Squirrel” stepped in to beat a brace of Russians and give the United States its third straight gold medal, equaling the record established by the Soviet Union between 1952 and 1960.
“I think she did exceptional, unbelievable,” said Nadia Comaneci, the Romanian icon who won three golds at Montreal in 1976.
What Douglas did inside North Greenwich Arena was what she saw Carly Patterson do in Athens in 2004. “After the Olympics [Gabby] said, ‘I’m going to do that one day, Mom, that’s going to be me.’ ” said her mother, Natalie Hawkins.
Hawkins was not sure how to respond. “You don’t want to crush your child’s dream. You can do anything you set your mind to do. But in my mind I’m thinking, “OK, what is this, point-zero-one-percent that actually make it?’ But then I said to myself, ‘somebody’s got to make it. Why not her?’ ”
‘Little girls would come up and say, hey, I want your autograph, I want your picture. I was like, “wow, am I really that good?” ’
Douglas, the youngest of Hawkins’s four children, despised ballet. “I made her do it, kicking and screaming,” Hawkins said. “She didn’t want to wear the tights, she didn’t like the shoes.” Gabby wanted to be barefoot and airborne.
By the time she was 12, it already was clear she had national potential. “I was winning all the competitions,” said Douglas. “Little girls would come up and say, hey, I want your autograph, I want your picture. I was like, ‘wow, am I really that good?’ I just went out there and did what I was supposed to do.”
Before long Douglas was too good for her Virginia Beach club and unlikely to make it to the international stage without more sophisticated coaching and rigorous training. So in the autumn of 2010 she went to Iowa and worked with Chow Liang, who’d coached former world champion Shawn Johnson to four medals in Beijing and had worked with Douglas at a clinic in her gym.
It was a “fantastic” decision for the 14-year-old, said national team coordinator Martha Karolyi, who has coached the last four Olympic squads. “She was in a program that did not expect world-class . . . She knew she could do better.”
But it was a wrenching decision for Douglas’s mother, who was reluctant to let her child move halfway across the country to chase a five-ringed fantasy. “That was the hardest decision of my life,” Hawkins said. “I’m a single parent so it’s not like I had someone else to help me. It was rough because I don’t know that this is going to pay off. There’s no guarantees.”
Douglas had struggled that year with hamstring and hip flexor injuries, and when they sat down with Chow, he told them they probably had come to him too late, but that he’d do what he could.
For Douglas, the geographic and demographic transition to West Des Moines was jarring. “I remember flying over and seeing all these cornfields and thinking, ‘What did I get myself into?’ ” she recalled.
Her two sisters and brother were 1,200 miles away. Her father Timothy, a staff sergeant in the Air National Guard, was stationed in Afghanistan. “I’d e-mail him and say, “Dad, I had a really bad dream about you, are you OK? He was like, I’m fine. Don’t think that, don’t worry. Pray to God and have God take over.” The next time she would see him would be in the Olympic trial, waving an American flag.
Douglas was a black teenager in a white sport dropped into the middle of a state that is 97 percent Caucasian. “I’d be listening to rap and I’d say, you don’t know this song?,” she said. “And they’d say, you don’t know country? I thought, this is awkward.”
Sharing the gym with Johnson, who was training for a return trip to the Games, was daunting. “I was still like in Wow! with her,” said Douglas. “OK, she’s watching, I’ve got to do this perfect. It took a while for us to have that girlfriend bond.”
In the meantime, she said, she was determined to make things work. “I was like, ‘Hey, this is my decision so I need to suck this up and do this thing,’ ” she said.
Douglas learned to like the cornfields and the folks who lived amid them. “Everyone was so nice,” she said. “You’re training at Chow’s? I’ll give you free nail polish and a discount on your next nail set. Groceries? I’ll give you the military discount. I thought, OK, I can handle this.”
She received a cooler reception inside the gym where Johnson was accustomed to being the queen. “I love Gabby,” Johnson said this year. “At first, to be completely honest, I wasn’t sure I was going to. I’ve never had a teammate at Chow’s. I’ve always had Chow to myself. We’re kind of a dad and daughter, so it was kind of like sharing my dad for the first time. I was like, I don’t know if I want a sister.”
But with Johnson struggling to recover from injuries and regain her old form, Douglas ended up being a cheerleader for the champ, whose comeback eventually fell short.
This was Douglas’s time, and after she made last year’s world team and won a gold medal, she wanted to cash in — giving up amateur status, and a possible college scholarship, in exchange for being able to make lucrative endorsements.
Then in March Gabby, who was competing as an alternate, outscored Wieber at the American Cup at Madison Square Garden. She asked her mother again. “I still said no,” Hawkins said. “And then I had agents say, hey, look, if you don’t hurry up all the deals are going to be gone, there’s not going to be any money on the table.”
Wieber and Raisman already had turned pro and others figured to follow. Natalie Hawkins was a single mom who was on disability leave from work. She had filed for bankruptcy in January. She’d spent more than $150,000 on Gabby’s gymnastics with no promise that she’d recoup a dime. “I didn’t take it lightly,” Hawkins said. “I weighed every single detail of that decision. I prayed on it, wrote a lot of pros and cons. I read a book about taking calculated risks.”
In the end, she decided it made sense for Gabby to give up amateur status. The Games were around the corner, and the way that Gabby fought through an ankle injury that she’d sustained at the Pacific Rim meet convinced her mother that going pro was a sensible risk. “I thought, OK, she’s in it to win it.”
Douglas ended up finishing second to Wieber at the June national championships in St. Louis by just two tenths of a point, then won the July trials in San Jose. After two years of Chow and Karolyi pushing her to be more focused, she had developed the mental discipline to go with her obvious physical gifts. “It’s hard for me to focus,” Douglas conceded. “I’ll tell myself: Focus — oh, there’s something shiny. Focus — oh, there’s a butterfly.”
The question at the Games was whether, with so much at stake, Douglas could keep that focus. Chow had forbidden her to peek at the scoreboard, but when he wasn’t looking, she did. All she had to do, Chow reminded her before her final routine, was do what she does dozens of times a day in the gym.
Douglas ended up on top of the world. “She demonstrated today that she can handle the highest pressure,” declared Chow after his pupil on Thursday outpointed Victoria Komova and former world titlist Aliya Mustafina.
Whether or not she makes the podium again in the event finals, Douglas already occupies a place of her own in gymnastics history.
“A barrier-breaker,” said Karolyi. The girl who wouldn’t wear ballet shoes operates at her own altitude these days. “The Flying Squirrel,” mused Comaneci, who operated closer to sea level in her day. “You never know where she’s going to land.”John Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.