Gabby Douglas new face of U.S. gymnastics gold

08/03/2012 12:00 AM

01/24/2014 1:58 PM

LONDON – The face you're going to see everywhere now has a smile that can win over a crowd and an exuberance they might put on a Wheaties box. This is the best gymnast in the world, a 16-year-old from Virginia who left her family to pursue a dream in Des Moines, Iowa. What a dream it turned out to be, too.

Did you see Gabby Douglas? Her energy? Her confidence? The graceful airborne routines that have people calling her "The Flying Squirrel?"

They screamed "Go, Gabby" before her final event started, dancing and clapping in the stands as an arena shared one of the Olympics' great moments – thousands of fans and an exceptional girl, all fully aware that the gold medal is hers, all fully embracing a floor routine that essentially turned into a victory lap.

Douglas joins her idols as the fourth American to win gold in the women's all-around, the most prestigious event in gymnastics. She's also the first African American, though she had to be told about it afterward.

"Oh, yeah," she said. "I kind of forgot about that."

So if history remembers Douglas as some sort of pioneer, fine. That's not how Douglas will remember this moment, the one that will leave her famous forever. She doesn't feel like a black gymnast. She feels like the world's best gymnast, and, yeah, she happens to be black.

At the moment, she also happens to be the breakout star of these Olympics. Her life is about to change. She's just Gabby now, known by first name only to a country of 300 million people because that's what we do with all-around gold-medal gymnasts.

This wasn't a fluke, either. Gabby's good friend and reigning world champion Jordyn Wieber was left out of the all-around because of a controversial rule limiting each country to only two spots, but even before the Games, it was debatable who was better. Douglas was the only American to participate in all four team events, for instance, and had the highest cumulative score of any individual in that meet.

Combined with the U.S. team championship Tuesday, Douglas now owns the two most coveted gold medals in her sport. She has the chance for more this week, too, as she's qualified for the finals in the uneven bars and balance beam. We're only seeing the beginning of her star.

This is a girl barely old enough to drive but plenty famous enough to live the rest of her life as Gabby the gold medalist. It's already starting. Just the other day, no less an icon than Serena Williams was talking about getting "chill bumps" from watching Douglas.

"Oh, I love her," Williams was saying. "Her whole body is so fit, I absolutely love her."

After Williams said that, someone asked about Gabby being black, and an inspiration. Williams answered by talking mostly about Gabby's gymnastics talent, and that's the way it should be.

If Gabby inspires a young black girl to become a gymnastics star, great. But it's not the point. Gabby isn't America's newest star because she's black. She's the country's newest star because she's the best in the world at what she does, and she somehow pulls the whole thing off with infectious joy.

If you know her story, you can see it in what she does.

There is a precision to her moves only possible through obsessive work, endless repetitions with the country's best coaches. There is a passion to what she does that can only come from a girl willing to make major sacrifices, like move halfway across the country to chase a dream.

And there is a confidence in how she carries herself that can only come from a family willing to support it all.

Gabby had excruciating choices to make along the way. Moving to Iowa meant changing her world at 14, and putting an enormous burden on her family.

The gymnastics world makes girls grow into women quickly. This is also Douglas' story, a critical part of her journey. Just last year at a major meet, her emotions spilled out and she finished seventh in the all-around. If that was the low point of her athletic life – a year away from the Olympics and questions about whether she could handle it – she vowed to learn.

To see her this week is to know she did. This is the making of America's newest star, regardless of her skin.

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