HOFFMAN ESTATES, Ill. -- Just about every four years, a new gymnast seems to step up and fill the role of America’s Olympic darling. And then, four years later, another gymnast comes along and replaces her.
Gabby Douglas doesn’t want to let us go.
The reigning Olympic all-around gold medalist took a break after the London 2012 Games, where she also helped the U.S. women’s team win the gold medal. But she’s quick to say her break was just that — a short break, not a break-up with America.
During her time off, doing the TV appearances and photo shoots, “I’d always daydream of being back,” Douglas said. Back at the gym, back on the bars and the beam — and, dare we say it, back on the podium.
Douglas is working to recapture, and even improve on, her 2012 form and has plans to compete in the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games, where she would try to become the first gymnast since 1968 to repeat as women’s all-around gold medalist.
“I never really wanted to retire,” Douglas said this past weekend as she prepared to compete in the Secret U.S. Classic, a meet in which she would finish second in the all-around to Simone Biles, the young gymnast who has won nearly everything since Douglas stepped away after London.
Talking to Douglas, you get the sense she missed the work and the fun of gymnastics. But she’s well aware that many of the greats — the gymnasts still known easily just by their first names like Nadia or Mary Lou or Nastia — haven’t been able to win a second all-around gold. If Douglas could do it, she’d be among the sport’s greatest of all time.
“That’s really such a big motivation for me, and that would be so amazing, if I come back and defend my title,” Douglas said.
Douglas and her coaches know that getting to Olympic championship form — again — is a process.
“We are going step by step,” said Martha Karolyi, the U.S. national team coordinator. “Certainly I cannot say that she is completely ready, but I think that she is making progress. ... I think she is on the right track.”
Douglas said regaining endurance lost during her time away has been the hardest part of her return to training. But the skills came back easily.
“It did take me a couple tries to get the rhythm back, but, you know, once I did those couple tries I had it back, and I was doing half routines, and then routines,” Douglas said. “The skills came back nice and easy.”
Douglas has been training since last August at Buckeye Gymnastics in Columbus, Ohio, where coach Kittia Carpenter said Douglas is now focused on improving those skills.
“We got back what she had, and now we’re trying to add to it,” Carpenter said. “We still have a lot of goals to reach. Beam is almost there; vault is very close, too. Bars needs to be consistent. Her skills are there, we just need consistency.”
Age is rarely considered a gymnast’s friend. Consider this: Only one gymnast age 20 or older has won the Olympic women’s all-around gold medal since 1972. Romania’s Simona Amanar was 20 when she won in 2000.
Douglas turns 20 on New Year’s Eve. And her body has changed — she’s grown a couple of inches since she was on the podium in London, though Douglas says she doesn’t think that presents any particular problems for her.
Douglas thinks maturity actually might help her as she sets her sights on Rio — and history.
“I’ve learned some things,” Douglas said. “I feel more confident, and more strong.”
Douglas also said she trusts herself, her training and her physical abilities more than she did in 2012, which means she can upgrade her routines. And she knows the sort of hard work it takes to be an Olympic champion, because she’s done it.
“I have to go back in the gym and work really hard and put in some upgrades,” Douglas said.
After her second-place showing at the Secret Classic, her first competition in the United States since before the London Games, Douglas said she felt great — and sounded like she was pumped for more. That more will come next month at the P&G Gymnastics Championships in Indianapolis.
The championships will also provide the next opportunity to face off against Biles, the two-time defending world and U.S. all-around champion.
Douglas and Biles are good friends, and Douglas said she loves competing against Biles because she pushes the envelope and forces Douglas to work harder. But Douglas is competitive too — and returning to competition with a performance good enough for second place at an event with the nation’s top gymnasts was aimed at sending a message to coaches and competitors that she is serious when saying she hasn’t peaked as a gymnast.
“I just wanted to come out here and really show everyone I was putting in the hard work in the gym, that I was ... for real and that I was serious,” Douglas said. “To show them ‘Hey! I’m doing it.’”
Dave Royse is a Chicago-based freelance journalist and a former reporter for the Associated Press and News Service of Florida. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.