LONDON - Gabby Douglas had to peek.
Her coaches had instructed her not to look at the giant overhead scoreboard in the Olympic women’s all-around final, to keep her head down and her focus on her routines.
“I kept my eye on her every single minute and she did not look up,” said her coach, Liang Chow.
“I snuck a peek,” the bubbly 16-year-old said, further admitting with a laugh, “After vault. And bars. And beam and floor.
“Sorry. I just had to see.”
Douglas saw herself in first place, thanks to an opening vault that scored 15.966, the second-highest mark posted in any event Thursday.
Once she finished her four routines, she had to wait for Russian rival Victoria Komova to wind up her floor routine.
Then Douglas and everyone else in North Greenwich Arena looked up at the scoreboard, waiting to see the official order of finish.
“It was definitely a nerve-wracking moment,” said Douglas. “My heart was racing. I was just like, ‘Oh my gosh, do I have it?’”
She did! With an infectious personality and a powerful belief in herself, Douglas, nicknamed “the Flying Squirrel,” became the fourth U.S. woman to win the Olympic all-around title and the third in a row. She joined Mary Lou Retton (1984), Carly Patterson (2004) and Nastia Liukin (2008).
Douglas is also the first U.S. all-around gold medalist to also win gold in the team event, which she and the rest of the Fab Five achieved on Tuesday.
“(There are) those who said I couldn’t do it,” Douglas said. “I can and I did and you know what? It feels amazing.”
After her tremendous vault, Douglas scored 15.733 on uneven bars, 15.500 on beam and 15.033 on floor exercise for a total of 62.232 points.
“This was her very best performance in my opinion in her gymnastics career,” said national team coordinator Martha Karolyi, who has been coaching Olympic champions since Nadia Comaneci in 1976.
Komova, the 2011 World Championships runner-up, was in second place the whole time, but trailed by .326 going into floor. She then scored 15.100 to finish at 61.973, and sobbed on the side of the arena as a grinning Douglas waved to the crowd.
The other U.S. competitor, Aly Raisman, and Aliya Mustafina of Russia each scored 59.566, but Mustafina was awarded the bronze medal based on a tiebreaker. Their lowest scores were dropped, and Mustafina had a higher total for the three remaining scores.
“I’m sad because I was so close to getting a medal,” said Raisman, who had an uncharacteristically low score on beam, “but it is what it is and I’m still fourth in the world so that’s definitely something to be proud of.”
Because of the rules of gymnastics, only two athletes per country can compete in the all-around. That meant that defending world champion Jordyn Wieber, who had the fourth-best score in team qualifying, had to sit out the event.
Douglas had started to overshadow Wieber earlier this summer, when she finished a close second to the 17-year-old from Michigan at the VISA Championships, then won the U.S. Olympic Team Trials by one-tenth of a point.
But her road to the top began with a journey halfway across the country. Two years ago she left her family in Virginia Beach, Va., to move to Des Moines, Iowa, to train with Chow, who developed 2008 Olympian Shawn Johnson.
Both her mom and her host family mom watched her win the gold medal.
Looking back, Douglas said, “It’s like, ‘Wow, everything is possible.’ I moved to Iowa, all those sacrifices and they all paid off.”
Added Karolyi, “Being so talented and feeling that she’s able to do more and seeking better coaching, it was a fantastic decision from a little 14-year-old girl.”
With Chow, Douglas found a patient coach with a calming manner. She overcame homesickness and injury, becoming a model of consistency through hard training.
“There’s no magic, but hard work,” Chow said. “I think the confidence she’s gained over the years and also the foundation of her practice really made a difference. If you don’t have a good foundation, you’ll be shaking, no matter what.”
In her two years with Chow, Douglas learned to put nerves and doubts behind her.
“You just have to stay strong and stay positive, ‘OK, I got this,’ and believe and don’t be afraid,” she said “Go out there and just dominate. You have to go out there and be a beast.
“Because if you don’t then you’re not going to be on the top.”
Douglas, who will also compete in the uneven bars event final on Aug. 6, said she was inspired by gymnast Dominique Dawes, who competed in her first Olympics before Douglas was born. She said she was honored to be compared with Dawes.
When the competition ended, Dawes tweeted: “I thought it was emotional making history in 96 but I’m realizing it’s just as emotional watching @GabrielleDoug make history in her right!”
“I hope I inspire people,” Douglas said. “My mom is telling me, ‘You can inspire a nation. So I always thought that about my motivation. And I wanted to always inspire people, because whether you’re having a hard time, just never give up and always keep fighting.”
Her personality, though, is more reminiscent of Retton. “Oh, I love her exuberance,” Karolyi said. “She puts on the smile every single time.”
When Douglas went out for her Olympic floor exercise routine, she made sure to smile, but also concentrated on her performance.
“I wanted to go out there and show everybody what I was capable of doing, so that’s what was going through my mind,” she said. “Afterwards, I wanted to put on a great big smile for you guys.”
And now fame awaits her, as America’s newest sweetheart.
“I say I’m ready, but I’m not going to be ready,” Douglas said. “People will be like, ‘Can I have a picture of you?’”
And she’ll have to remind herself why they're paying attention to her. “Oh, yeah, that’s right. I’m on Cloud Nine.”
Karen Rosen is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of any National Governing Bodies.