With Big Smile and Big Talent, Douglas Ready to Soar
By Nancy Armour (AP); The Virginian-Pilot
When Gabby Douglas flashes a dazzling smile and saunters across the floor as if she owns the place, the concept seems downright impossible.
“I used to be sooo shy,” the 16-year-old said with a giggle. “Now I’m just ready to go out there and perform. I’m so ready to take on this journey.”
It’s going to be quite a trip.
Not only has Douglas emerged as world champion Jordyn Wieber’s main rival, finishing 0.2 points behind at the U.S. championships two weeks ago, she could be the brightest star on a powerful U.S. team. With cover girl looks, a personality that leaps through the TV set and a nickname you won’t soon forget, Douglas has all the makings of the next Mary Lou Retton.
The U.S. team will be picked Sunday, following the Olympic trials in San Jose, Calif. Barring injury, Douglas is considered a lock for London. In addition to the team competition and all-around, Douglas has medal potential on uneven bars, where her moves are so effortless that national team coordinator Martha Karolyi dubbed her the “Flying Squirrel.”
“She is who you see,” said Missy Parton, whose family took Douglas in after she persuaded her mother to let her move from Virginia Beach to West Des Moines, Iowa, to train. “She loves to joke and tease. She’s very animated and very personable, and she’s got that smile that’s contagious. You can’t help but fall in love with her.”
Though “bad mood” doesn’t seem to be part of Douglas’ vocabulary, there is a fierce determination behind her sunny personality.
There has to be to pick up and move halfway across the country at age 14 to pursue a goal few others saw at the time.
“I knew the talent was there because everybody, anybody who came in contact with me, coaches, other gym parents, always told me how talented she was,” said Natalie Hawkins, Douglas’ mother. “So I knew that. And I knew if she had the right pieces of the puzzle that she would have the potential. But all of this? No, I never saw that.”
Watching the 2008 Olympics, Douglas had been impressed by the warm relationship Shawn Johnson had with her coach, Liang Chow. Douglas told her mother she wanted to train with Chow. Two years later, after Chow came to do a camp at Douglas’ gym in Virginia Beach, she was sure of it.
But Chow’s gym is in Iowa, and there was no way Hawkins was uprooting her family.
“I used to tell her all the time, ‘You need to suck it up. You need to suck it up and just deal with it because I’m not going to pick up the family and move. I’m not going to just send you away,’ ” Hawkins said.
But one day, Hawkins’ two oldest daughters came to her with a list of all the reasons Gabby should be allowed to train in Iowa.
The only reason for her to stay: They would miss her.
“I thought, ‘I am really going to do this. I’m going to send my child away to someone I don’t know, to live with a host family that I’ve never met, know nothing about,’ ” Hawkins said. “And I have to be OK with this. I’m going to be in Virginia, she’s going to be all the way in Iowa. How do you come to terms with that?”
After living with another host family for a few months, Douglas was taken in by Parton and her husband, Travis. The couple has four daughters, and treated Douglas as if she was their fifth. She was given her own room, something she’d never had.
“I couldn’t imagine a better place for her to be,” Hawkins said. “They literally take care of her like she’s their child.”
Said Parton, “We treat her no different – I can’t imagine treating her any different. If I were to make her feel the odd man out, that situation would affect every part of her life. If I weren’t to treat her as much as my own as much as I possibly can, that would affect her training. She probably wouldn’t be where she was right now.”
Douglas now refers to Parton as her “second mom” – Hawkins and Missy Parton wore matching T-shirts at nationals – and revels in being a “big sister” for the first time. She has movie nights with the Parton girls, does their nails and, in true big sister fashion, even gets on them to pick up their socks when they leave them on the floor.
That’s not to say Douglas’ move was easy.
When she got a message from one of her sisters that they were on their way to the latest “Twilight’ movie, something they’d always done together, Douglas couldn’t help herself: She sobbed. She missed her dogs and the beach, and she hated the cold.
A hamstring injury that limited her training last spring and summer didn’t help. She finished a disappointing seventh at the 2011 U.S. championships.
As recently as January, she was questioning whether the sacrifices were worth it.
“It was my decision and my dream, so I couldn’t back down and be a wimp,” Douglas said. “I’m so happy and thrilled that I stayed. If I’d have went home, I wouldn’t have accomplished all (this).”
After helping the Americans win their third team title at the world championships last fall, Douglas had a breakout performance at the American Cup in March. She was dazzling, looking very much at home in the bright lights at Madison Square Garden. She actually finished ahead of Wieber and Aly Raisman, though her scores didn’t count because she was competing as an alternate.
She showed that was no fluke at nationals. After finishing the first day of competition tied with Wieber, Douglas wound up a close second, the difference being her fall off the balance beam.
Despite the fall, Douglas bopped around the floor with a grin on her face, looking as if she was having the time of her life.
“Always seize the moment. Always,” Douglas said. “You’re not going to have these golden years forever, so enjoy it.”