It all changes for newly gold-minted Gabby Douglas, who became the talk of these Games with a performance that recalled the very best in history
ONLY IN a secluded corridor of London's North Greenwich Arena last Thursday night, away from judges and cameras, did Gabby Douglas finally, completely lose her balance. She jumped into the waiting arms of her mother, Natalie Hawkins, crackled a thank you and had to fudge her footing on her dismount. It was a rare wobble after a sublime performance that begged for context.
It would soon be offered by Nadia Comaneci, the original standard-bearer of gymnastics perfection, who in a nearby hallway reached for the arm of a passing Béla Kàrolyi and shouted to her old coach, "Remind you of something?"
"Yes," he said, "reminds me of you. Like bulldozer."
August 13, 2012
"No, better," Comaneci replied. "Even better."
The 16-year-old Douglas, a whirl of bubbling, unbridled charisma, had rewritten history as both the first African-American all-around champion and the first U.S. gymnast to win team and all-around gold medals. "In one performance," Kàrolyi said, "that rare combination of joy and fire gave new life to the sport."
The sport was changing the lives of Douglas and her family too. Hawkins felt it a half an hour earlier as she sat in the stands of section 112. "It's going to take me a while to digest," she told her three other children, Arielle, 23; Joy, 19; and John, 17. "If she gets any more medals, somebody's going to have to carry me out of the arena." Next to Hawkins, Douglas's agent, Sheryl Shade, took messages on her BlackBerry, just seconds apart, from both the Jay Leno and David Letterman shows. While furiously answering and erasing e-mails, Shade stopped to take a message count. "Six hundred fifty-four," she said. Behind Shade, Missy and Travis Parton, Douglas's host family in West Des Moines, Iowa, phoned home to talk to their daughters, but the girls scurried away to avoid any spoilers. They would wait for the tape-delayed coverage.
Even after Gabby was whisked away to a Team USA vehicle through a separate exit, the family needed its own escort, past two rows of clapping spectators, to the nearest tube station. As they were leaving, Carl Reid, a Games volunteer, told the group, "I just had a girl offer me a hundred pounds to get your daughter's autograph."
Near the London Bridge station, the Douglas camp reached a VIP room on the top floor of P&G House, a sponsor respite for athlete families during the Games. Unaware of the results, the siblings watched a replay of Michael Phelps winning the 200-meter individual medley and broke into "USA, USA" chants. Gabby's brother, John, did the Dougie with Steve Penny, the CEO of USA Gymnastics. A congratulatory Mary Lou Retton told the family, "Pull up a chair and be ready for the ride. She's going to break barriers on so many different levels." Shade's sleepless night was golden too. At 3 a.m. she finalized a four-year deal with Kellogg's, which the next morning would unveil a medal-adorned Douglas on a box of Corn Flakes.
As Friday morning broke in New York City, Shade's assistant, Jessica Lichtenberg, e-mailed, "We've heard from everyone except the President, the pope and Oprah." Well, actually Obama, in fact, had already reached Douglas directly on Aug. 1 to say, "You tore it up." And Oprah tweeted, "OMG, I'm so THRILLED for Gabby. Flowing happy Tears!" What, no pope? Offers came in from the Grammys and the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. "I just smile," says Shade. "She's 16. It's nice that they're asking."
By 9 a.m. in London, Douglas was on the local set of the Today show and floored to see the Corn Flakes box for the first time. "How is this happening?" she said to Shade in fitting wonder. Then she asked Hawkins about a puzzling entry she'd seen on Google: "Mom, why is my hair trending?" After her triumph in the all-around, Douglas's slick ponytail became a hot topic on Facebook and Twitter, giving credence to the dubious notion that you're not really a star unless you're trending on social media.
TWO YEARS ago Douglas was pleading with her mother to let her move from her hometown gym in Virginia Beach to one in Des Moines where Liang Chow has been training gymnasts, including Beijing Olympic star Shawn Johnson, since 1998. "I was reluctant," Hawkins recalls, "but I had always told her to go after her dreams. She threw those words right back at me." What's more, Douglas talked to her about inspiring other girls. "She told me she wanted her life to count for something," says Hawkins. "I looked at her thinking, Wow, this is my girl."
Chow saw the prodigious talent that became known as the Flying Squirrel for the amplitude of Douglas's tumbling and release skills, but given the quadrennial Olympic cycles, he wasn't sure there was enough time to be of much help. But he consented, choosing to make up for lost time by cranking up the difficulty in Douglas's routines. He also lavished her with gobs of praise and preached attention to the exacting details that could elevate her from contender to champ. "I had to believe in her, and she had to believe in herself," Chow says.
Last year Douglas moved in with the Partons who already had four girls, Hailey, 10; twins Lexi and Leah, 7; and Elissa, 6. They each embraced the ebullient newcomer. Douglas held marathon bouncing sessions with Leah on the trampoline. "We thought this would wear off after a while," Missy says. "It hasn't. They just love her." Travis, a woodworking contractor, became the father figure missing from Douglas's life. Tim, an Air National Guard staff sergeant who has done three tours in Afghanistan, is going through a divorce from Hawkins. He hadn't seen Douglas in nearly two years until he surprised her the Olympic trials in San Jose in June. Travis gave her driving lessons and advice for the first dates she has yet to go on. "Any young gentleman best treat you like a lady," he told her, "because we have your back."
Only once, last January, when Hawkins went back to Virginia after visiting Iowa, did Douglas hit a speed bump. "She was homesick," says Hawkins. "Now I threw her words back at her. It was her dream, but people were sacrificing to make it work."
THE U.S. women came to London as strong favorites to match the world title they won last year in Tokyo, where they beat Russia by a robust 4.082 points. Last weekend the margin in London was 5.066 points, a gap of nearly a fall on every event. That was the first night of USA Gold, which coincidentally is an anagram for ... Douglas. As the only team member to compete on each apparatus, Douglas averaged 15.367 but took marginal deductions she hadn't been getting in domestic meets for comparable routines. Sure her start values were high enough to match the other likely contenders in the July 31 all-around final—her teammate Aly Raisman and Russians Viktoria Komova and Aliya Mustafina—but even given her meteoric rise with Chow, she still had no currency with international judges in a major all-around final. Raisman and Mustafina would both break badly on the beam, leaving Komova as Douglas's main foe for gold. "Get through bars, stay on beam," she said earlier in the week. "Don't lose it up there just because it's the Olympics."
Predictably Douglas began the competitions by nailing a soaring Amanar vault (round-off with 2½ twists) that scored 15.966. She then moved to the uneven bars, the apparatus that really highlights her nickname. She finished eighth in Monday's individual competition on the bars). On two versions of a Tkatchev (straddle release over the bar to recatch), there is almost a willing suspension of gravity keeping her aloft. Here she pushed two handstand swings right to a more precarious vertical position before swinging back. With the wow factor punctuated by Chow's insistence on detail, Douglas was on her way with a 15.733 to give her a .267 lead.
The beam is precarious for everyone. Tumble on a four-inch plank? Might as well motorbike on a tightrope. Douglas actually stopped in the middle of last summer's nationals before her dismount. But last Thursday she stayed calm throughout and executed a key save when she started tipping a bit after a full-twisting back tuck. "Every skill," said Hawkins. "In my head I was checking off every skill." With a mark of 15.500, Douglas upped the margin to .326.
On the floor exercises, Douglas's last event, she was clean on four superb tumbling passes—flotation devices optional—though she came close to going out-of-bounds on one and waited anxiously to see if Komova could top her 15.033 and erase the deficit. In fact, Komova's routine was flawless. When she stuck a piked double-back dismount, Douglas took turns averting her eyes and peeking, before at last seeing her name at the top of the scoreboard. She embraced Chow on the floor while Twitter and Facebook blew up. The coming weeks and months are sure to be fun and daunting, as she pulls up the chair and begins the ride Retton spoke of. It's time to let her fly and then wait for her to come down.
"In one performance," Kàrolyi said, "that rare combination of joy and fire gave new life to the sport."
The coming weeks and months are sure to be fun and daunting, as Douglas pulls up a chair and begins the ride.
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