For ten days, Gabby Douglas performed on pieces of equipment that were fixed in place. They didn't swing back at her, knock her off her feet or take unexpected turns. Post-Olympic life for the all-around gymnastics champion, the IT Girl of the London Games, will be much more complicated.
It was easy to sense this while spending the better part of two days with Douglas's support group after the all-around final. Within minutes of Douglas receiving the gold medal, her agent Sheryl Shade did a number count of the emails she'd just received on her BlackBerry. When Shade saw 654, she practically took a three-tenths deduction for steadying herself against an arena chair. And as the Douglas family rode the Jubilee Line on the London underground transport system after leaving the arena on Thursday night, grandmother Carolyn Ford turned to Natalie Hawkins, the new champion's mom, and said, "Nat, you better hold on because you know your feet won't be touching the ground."
Later, Ford admitted, "I'm not sure we're prepared for all this."
If anyone would know about preparation for difficult and time-sensitive tasks, it would be Ford, a retired Navy clerk who spent 24 years in the military. But this kind of development wasn't in a manual.
The Douglases are neat people. Hawkins told me about how she was a coupon saver, a person who often won performance awards in her old job as a bill collector for a bank in order to earn gas cards, food cards and other items that helped pay the bills. Gabby's 19-year-old artistically-inclined sister, Joy, helped design T-shirts to raise money for the family so it could travel to watch Gabby compete. Joy, an aspiring athlete who has taken time away from figure skating, can now go home and try to get her double Lutz back. But the one constant during the two days I spent with this family was their look of amazement at how quickly things have moved.
It was only two years ago that Hawkins sent her now famous daughter to Chow's gym in Des Moines, Iowa, hoping that Gabby would be better able to reach her potential. Gabby later moved in with a host family: Travis and Missy Parton and their four daughters. The Parton parents were also with the Douglases in London and they have become extended family members to the point that Hawkins doesn't consider a family discussion to be close unless they are included. Still, the group also understands that the fame train is not only going to move for a while, it may accelerate as offers pour in and Gabby is pulled in different directions.
"Olympic all-around champ is going to be attached to my name," she said after her last event final on Tuesday. "Life is going to be crazy for me . . . A lot of people are going to notice me more. There's going to be parades. It's going to be insane. I'm ready for it."
Douglas talked about wanting to continue for another Olympic cycle, but that proved to be a difficult road for both Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson, two of the returning stars from Beijing. But Douglas is only 16, and her body type is relatively suitable for a longer career. These days, female gymnasts who take care of themselves are, indeed, able to stay around a bit longer. Britain's Beth Tweddle, 27, won a bronze on the uneven bars, and ageless wonder Oksana Chusovitina of Germany made the vault finals at an astounding 36.
Douglas, however, will have new opportunities away from the gym and more freedom of movement as she reaches 18. Perhaps most daunting, she'll face a slew of eager, younger competitors shooting up through the sport's domestic ranks. Martha Karolyi, the head of the U.S. women's program, isn't one to let sentiment get in the way of welcoming newcomers to the fold. Next year, she'll have a new batch of talented juniors: Lexie Priessman, Madison Desch, Simone Biles and two alternates on the London team -- Elizabeth Price, 16 and Sarah Finnegan, 15.
"It will be a strong test of Gabby's preparation if she is able to maintain her current level and even to grow from it," Karolyi says. "Every four years, the standard is raised to a new level, so the more distraction a champion gymnast has, the more difficult it can be to get back to the same place. And, in fact, she needs to get to the next place. This will be a challenge for Gabby."
Douglas's popularity has skyrocketed since late May when the member of the 2011 gold-medal-winning World Championships team had 4,000 followers in her Twitter account. As of Thursday afternoon, she was up to 600,000. She was also the most clicked upon athlete on NBC's Olympic site with more than 18 million views. That's more than Michael Phelps or Usain Bolt.
"My life is going to change so much," Douglas says. "I made the history books. I'm not going to go anywhere without anyone noticing me or wanting a picture or an autograph. ... It's definitely a good feeling."
Douglas also spoke about a need to relax and do nothing, to just go back to her home in Virginia Beach, away from the gym, so she and her dogs can get some sleep. But there will be a 40-city coast-to-coast tour with her gymnastics teammates next month and she hasn't decided how many stops she will do. Though she is not eligible to compete in collegiate gymnastics because she has turned pro, Douglas would still like to attend college somewhere.
Shade says that, for future engagements, Douglas will need to find appropriate sizes for her attire, such as dresses in double zero, to wear on red carpets. Nike made the warm-up outfits that the athletes wore to accept their medals during victory ceremonies, but it turned out that even extra small was too big for Douglas. A Nike representative emailed Shade to tell her, "[Gabby's] swimming in it" early in the week and then scrambled to re-cut one.
Ironically, Douglas didn't need the new outfit. She wore down at the end, finishing eighth and seventh in her two individual apparatus finals, bars and beam, respectively. Now she faces a new challenge ahead: figuring out how to fit into her new life.