Officially, she is still Gabrielle Douglas. It’s a fitting name for an elegant gymnast, the kind you’d expect to mesmerize crowds with her grace and beauty.
Over the past several weeks, however, the world has been introduced to Gabby Douglas, the spunky, 4-foot-11 ball of energy who is the United States’ best shot for a third consecutive Olympic all-around gold medal Thursday in London.
This is the same Gabby Douglas who on Tuesday could lead the U.S. women to its first Olympic team gold medal since 1996.
And this is the same Gabby Douglas who told reporters after winning the U.S. Olympic Trials that she was excited to go to London to “catch some accents” from the locals.
“I’ve always wanted an accent,” she said then, her giant grin and hopeful eyes lighting up the otherwise dreary, windowless chamber beneath the HP Pavilion in San Jose, where the U.S. Olympic Trials had just wrapped up.
These days, Gabby Douglas can work a room like the best of them. In a sport where the mostly teenaged athletes are intensely focused and can come off as, well, tense, there’s not a question the 16-year-old Douglas won’t answer, and there’s not an answer that isn’t laced with varying degrees of passion and her playful, girlish laugh.
Gabby is the rare women’s gymnast. She’s the type who’s not afraid to show some teeth out on the podium. She’s also the type who flies so high off the uneven bars she earned the nickname “Flying Squirrel.”
Yet there was a time not even a year ago when even to the most extreme gymnastics fans she was still Gabrielle Douglas, the mostly unknown prospect.
After showing promise bouncing off the walls at her original gym in Virginia Beach, Va., Douglas first minor made headlines in October 2010 when, as a 14-year-old, she moved to West Des Moines, Iowa, to live with a host family and train with Liang Chow, famous for coaching 2008 Olympic gold medalist Shawn Johnson.
But at her first senior Visa Championships last August in St. Paul, Minn., in the midst of a packed field including three 2008 Olympians, an injured Douglas hardly made a ripple, ending a mistake-plagued competition seventh in the all-around.
“I did not recognize her on that floor,” said her mother, Natalie Hawkins. “It was very hard to watch her go through that.”
At home with her family, Douglas had always been the playful, charismatic Gabby who is on display this week in London. In Iowa, surrounded by cornstalks rather than the familiar beaches back in Virginia, Gabby said she loves her host family, but homesickness occasionally set in.
In January, shortly after her family came out to Iowa to celebrate Gabby’s 16th birthday, the gymnast told her mom she wanted to come home. It was a jarring announcement. The decision to let Gabby leave home in the first place was hard enough for Hawkins and Gabby’s dad, Air Force Staff Sgt. Timothy Douglas. Her parents are separated and her dad had been deployed to Afghanistan. But they had made the sacrifices to help their daughter achieve her goal.
Now their daughter wanted to give it up despite being so close?
Hawkins and Gabby’s older brother and two sisters said as much to Gabby, but Hawkins ultimately let her daughter decide her own future.
“She called me and said, ‘I’m going to stay and fight,’ ” Hawkins said.
And fight she has.
The turning point when little-known Gabrielle starting becoming magnetic Gabby came last October, when Douglas was one of six U.S. women on the team that brought home a world championship from Tokyo. Although she only competed in the uneven bars at time finals, something clicked.
“It was a point where she had to prove herself, and she did really well,” said Alicia Sacramone, a 2008 Olympian and Douglas’ teammate at the 2011 world championships. “She has more confidence in herself, and that shows in her gymnastics. I think before she was a little more timid about going 100 percent, and now she is going full-force.”
“I’m a world champion,” Douglas said, simply, “and I’ve accepted it.”
Ever since that meet, she has competed not just as though she is a world team champion but also as if she were a world all-around champion.
In March, though Douglas was competing as an alternate, she recorded the highest all-around score at the AT&T American Cup in New York City’s Madison Square Garden — surpassing even her American teammate Jordyn Wieber, who had won the world all-around title in October.
“That’s the Gabrielle I know,” Hawkins said proudly.
That bouncy, energetic Gabby continued to cement herself as a true Olympic all-around contender, and the playful, charismatic Gabby continued to emerge as a potential face of the U.S. Olympic Team.
From a gymnastics perspective, however, Douglas’ youthful energy can cut both ways. Bela Karolyi, the eccentric former coach of Nadia Comaneci, Mary Lou Retton, Kerri Strug and others, succinctly summed up Douglas in four simple words: “She’s just a kid.”
While all five members of Team USA could be described as “kids” — Aly Raisman, at 18, is the oldest among them — the excitable Douglas has been more apt to make childish mistakes than her teammates. Had it not been for a fall on balance beam at the 2012 Visa Championships in June in St. Louis, Douglas almost certainly would have outscored Wieber for the all-around title. Instead, Wieber held on by the slightest of margins: 0.2.
Douglas finally overcame Wieber in an official all-around competition at the Olympic Trials three weeks later, but even that competition included some silly mistakes.
“Gabby lost about four-tenths on the beam just picking up her leg for no reason,” an exasperated Karolyi said. “For no reason!”
Working with Chow has helped that dramatically. Johnson, who retired due to injuries earlier this summer, said Douglas was “raw material and talent” when she arrived at Chow’s Gymnastics and Dance Institute nearly two years ago. Now, Johnson said, Chow has “sculpted her into a machine.”
“She looks like a new person,” Johnson said. “She competes like a new person. She thinks like a new person. I think she’s just day and night from what she was when she walked into our gym for the first time.”
Mistakes and all, Douglas made a pretty strong argument this summer that she is the best all-around gymnast in the United States — and possibly the world. The question now is what she could accomplish if she is able to put together a clean routine.
At the Olympic qualifying round Sunday in London, despite stepping out of bounds with both feet in her floor exercise, Douglas ended with the third-best all-around score, barely behind Russia’s Viktoria Komova and American teammate Raisman. Meanwhile, Wieber, the presumptive favorite going in, had the fourth-best score but was left out of the 24-person all-around finals because only two gymnasts per country can qualify.
Both Americans should be contenders for that all-around title Thursday. Douglas also qualified for the individual uneven bars final, which takes place Aug. 6.
The big one could come on Tuesday, though, when the heavily favored American women go for gold in the team competition — the United States’ first since Strug and the Magnificent Seven did it in 1996. Although the slate is wiped clean for the finals, Team USA, the reigning world champions, outscored second-place Russia 181.863 to 180.429 in the first round.
For Douglas, this week is an opportunity to enter Olympic gymnastics immortality. And if she does, she will go down as Gabby the elegant, graceful gymnast and Gabby the one-of-a-kind showman.
To her mom, though, she will always be Gabrielle.