Gabrielle Douglas: A Favorite, Olympic Gymnastics Trials
San Jose Mercury News
The tiny gymnast leaped up to a high chair, stared directly into a bank of television cameras and then did what came natural.
Gabby Douglas flashed a megawatt smile.
The latest teen phenom to pop out of the American gymnastics incubator could not have looked more relaxed heading into the U.S. Olympic trials that begins Friday for the women at HP Pavilion.
Douglas, 16, seems poised to overtake last week’s teen star Jordyn Wieber as the favorite heading into the London Games.
If she makes the five-woman Olympic team, as expected, Douglas will be the first African American since Dominique Dawes in 2000. Douglas also is aiming to be only the second African American woman in history to win an individual Olympic medal. Dawes won a bronze medal in the floor exercise in 1996.
None of this bothers the 5-foot, 94-pound performer.
“My coaches have taught me to relax in practice,” she said of handling the trials’ claustrophobic atmosphere. “I’ve learned to unplug and plug it in” when it’s time to compete.
It’s difficult to imagine Douglas unplugged because there is nothing acoustic about her personality on or off the mat.
The muscular, elastic gymnast has vaulted to the top of her sport this year to become the chief rival to Wieber, the reigning world champion. The two competitors, plus the steady Aly Raisman, give the United States a lineup that could be difficult to unseat at the London Games.
U.S. gymnastics officials will announce the team Sunday night after the competition ends. Only the all-around winner automatically earns a berth. A three-member committee will decide on the other four spots, plus pick up to three alternates.
However the judges calculate the scores during the two-day competition, Douglas leads in talking points. While Wieber, also 16, is polite, but reserved, Douglas attracts the spotlight like an A-list actor.
“It is so great to have two strong people,” she said of the budding rivalry with Wieber. “I love the competition. It makes us better. She does a perfect routine. I’m going to do a perfect routine too.”
While Wieber performs with power and consistency Douglas has flair in the air. She does a towering piked reverse Hecht on the uneven bars that defies the laws of gravity.
“She has a special lightness and freedom in the routine,” national team director Martha Karolyi said. “Some people may have higher difficulty values, but Gabby’s execution is the best in the world.”
It’s one reason Karolyi likes to call the gymnast the “Flying Squirrel.”
“I took that name in,” Douglas said. “I love people calling me the squirrel.”
Her mom, Natalie Hawkins, made Team Gabby T-shirts with a squirrel on the back.
“I’ve got one,” Douglas chirped.
It has been a meteoric ascent for the youngest of four children. Douglas started performing so well that she begged her mom to let her move to Iowa to train with Liang Chow, the coach who developed 2008 star Shawn Johnson.
Johnson and her coach caught Douglas’ eye during the Beijing Games. Gabby recalled that Chow looked happy whenever the cameras showed him. She met the coach in Virginia Beach two years ago and started a campaign to move to Iowa.
Douglas told her mom she needed to leave Virginia to get better coaching.
“No you don’t,” Hawkins said. “Just suck it up.”
The teen enlisted her two sisters to plead the case. “Now I am training with one of the best coaches in the world,” Douglas said, before flashing that smile again.
It wasn’t easy leaving home at age 14. She missed her family and her life in Virginia.
“When my mom left Iowa I cried and cried,” recalled Douglas, who is home-schooled like many elite gymnasts.
But after a couple months, she gave herself a pep talk to get over it.
“I decided I was not going to be a baby,” Douglas said. “I was going to be mature. I think over the last year or so I’ve definitely grown up.”
She has learned to love Iowa and the ham balls her host mom Missy Parton cooks. The family has taken in Douglas and made the gymnast their “fifth daughter.” She even has become accustomed to frigid Midwestern winters.
The decision to uproot has proved worthwhile, though it didn’t seem that way a year ago when dealing with a hamstring injury. Douglas placed seventh overall at the 2011 U.S. championships after struggling on almost every apparatus.
But she was part of the gold-medal winning team at the World Championships in October. By winter Douglas was matching Wieber’s performances.
Almost three weeks ago at the Visa national championships in St. Louis, Douglas started her final day dreadfully. She lost her footing on the balance beam and fell off the narrow slab of wood. The mistake cost a one-point deduction. It’s a deficit virtually impossible to overcome without a competitor also making a major error.
Douglas got back on the beam feeling angry. She didn’t want to meltdown like the previous year. “OK, stick everything,” the gymnast thought.
“I wanted to prove that I was a fighter and I wouldn’t give up,” Douglas said.
Her final three routines were spotless. Douglas lost to Wieber by a miniscule two-tenths of a point. Without the fall off the beam she would have won by a landslide.
Douglas spent much of a practice session this week in San Jose working on the beam. She later promised to show she can master it.
As if anyone doubted otherwise.