LONDON — She was under strict coach’s orders not to look at the scoreboard but she couldn’t resist. “I peeked,” Gabrielle Douglas confessed. Only four times, though — after the vault, uneven bars, balance beam, and floor exercise. “I was casually looking up,” she said. “Oh, there I am.”
And when the chalk dust had settled inside the North Greenwich Arena Thursday night the girl they call the “Flying Squirrel” had made Olympic history, becoming the first US female gymnast to claim a gold medal in both the team and individual events in the same Games and the first African-American to win the all-around.
“You have to learn to enjoy and seize the moment,” the 16-year-old proclaimed after she’d outpointed Russia’s Victoria Komova and Aliya Mustafina to give the Americans the gold medal for the third consecutive Games, achieved only by the former Soviet Union in 1952 through 1960.
Had the tiebreaker fallen differently the US would have had a second medalist, as it did in Beijing when Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson finished 1-2. But Needham native Aly Raisman, who’d been hoping for gold after topping the qualifying standings, finished fourth despite equaling Mustafina’s total of 59.566.
“I’m still an Olympic champion,” said the team captain, who has two more chances at gold in next week’s event finals on beam and floor. “I wish I could have been on the podium as well but I’m happy for the three girls who were up there.”
Had Raisman not had a rocky outing on beam, normally one of her stronger events, she almost certainly would have won the bronze. But she wobbled several times, nearly falling off, and ended up with a score of 14.200 that dropped her into fifth with one rotation remaining.
“Aly had two perfect beam routines in the warm-up gym,” said national team coordinator Martha Karolyi. “I don’t know what happened. Because just keeping her normal routine she would be categorically in third place, not even by a short tenth or two. It’s a big shame.”
When Raisman and Mustafina, the former world champion, ended up tied to the thousandth of a point, the Russian prevailed because she had higher execution and difficulty scores on her best three events. The difference was the 16.100 that Mustafina hung up on bars and the 13.633 on beam that didn’t count for the tiebreaker. Raisman’s beam score meant that her 14.333 on bars, her weakest event, had to count. “We have two chances for the two medals,” said her coach Mihai Brestyan about the apparatus finals. “I hope we get one of them.”
Though Douglas has two more golden shot on bars and beam, her best chance was this one and she made it happen with a steady string of solid scores — 15.966 on vault, 15.733 on bars, 15.500 on beam and 15.033 on floor. “The Flying Squirrel flew extremely high today,” said Karolyi.
Altitude never had been the issue for Douglas. Consistency was.
“A lot of people question-marked her ability to focus,” said Karolyi. But when it mattered most Douglas was locked in, staying within herself without constraining herself. That was the biggest lesson she learned when she moved from Virginia to Iowa to train with coach Chow Liang, who’d tutored Johnson.
Once Douglas mastered both the physical and mental aspects of the sport, she had a killer combination.
“I haven’t seen any gymnast go from an average good gymnast five months ago to climb up to be best in the world,” remarked Karolyi.
Though Douglas had been a member of last year’s gold-medal world team, she’d been overshadowed by all-around champion Jordyn Wieber and by Raisman, the team’s most experienced and reliable performer. But Douglas had won the team trials and when Wieber didn’t qualify for the all-around and Raisman slipped out of contention, Douglas stepped in with energy and effervescence. “You have to go out there and be a beast,” she declared.
And like Mary Lou Retton in 1984, Carly Patterson in 2004, and Liukin last time, Douglas grabbed the title that enables a gymnast to need no last name for the rest of her life. “People say younger gymnasts have pressure,” observed Nadia Comaneci, who redefined the sport with her all-around performance in Montreal in 1976. “I think other way around. When you’re young, you go out there, know what to do, what you learned.”
All she had to do, Chow reminded Douglas before she took the floor, was what she does every day in practice. She was more than three-tenths of a point ahead of Komova, who the Russians had left off their floor lineup in the team competition. If Douglas stayed upright and in bounds, she’d be fine. That she did and ended up with a glittering prize that had Bela Karolyi, Comaneci’s and Retton’s old coach, high-fiving everyone in sight. “Wow,” said the Flying Squirrel. “Everything is possible.”