Congratulations to USA Women’s Gymnast Gabby Douglas for becoming the first African-American gymnast to win her sport’s most revered title. Douglas became the first U.S. gymnast to win both the individual all-around gold medal and a team gold at an Olympics. She also became the fourth American to win the title, and the third in a row.
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LONDON – Gabby Douglas was still basically unknown to the outside world, just “an average good gymnast,” in the words of national team coordinator Marta Karolyi, when she showed up in March at the American Cup Olympic preview event in Madison Square Garden. Her resume paled in comparison to reigning world champion Jordyn Wieber’s. At the previous year’s world championships, for instance, Douglas’ best individual finish was a fifth place on the uneven bars.That day in New York, she competed as an exhibition athlete, meaning her scores didn’t count. But something strange happened: she finished higher than Wieber.
I asked Douglas about handling the pressure of the next five months.
“Pressure?” she said with a radiant smile. “I love it. I love to stick the landing like there is no tomorrow. You stick the landing and it’s like, ‘Game on.’ I’m so ready for this. My mom says I’m a fighter, a fierce competitor, and I think I am, too.”
Walking away from that short conversation, I couldn’t help but think that I’d just talked to the future Olympic gold medalist.
As the 16-year-old Douglas bounded from one rotation to another Thursday on what would become one of the most historic days in women’s gymnastics, her sheer love of competition, combined with an extraordinary level of self-confidence, carried her to the women’s individual all-around title, often considered the most potentially lucrative gold medal of the Summer Olympics.
The first African-American gymnast to win her sport’s most revered title, Douglas became the first U.S. gymnast to win both the individual all-around gold medal and a team gold at an Olympics. She also became the fourth American to win the title, and the third in a row.
USA’s Gabby Douglas takes gold in women’s all-around
Holy Mary Lou Retton, we’re on to something here.
Douglas’ rise from obscurity to the top of her sport follows the path of many of those who came before her. Growing up in Virginia Beach, she persuaded her mother that she had to move to an acclaimed gym, in this case, to Des Moines, at the age of 14 to train with Liang Chow, Shawn Johnson’s coach. At first her mother said what most mothers would: No way. But Douglas’ two older sisters began lobbying on Gabby’s behalf, and while her mother said she feared she “must have lost (her) marbles,” she finally relented.
Douglas might as well have shouted her Olympic intentions from the Iowa rooftops the day she arrived in the new gym. This was a young fireball on a singular mission, to channel her natural talent and grace into something quite formidable, with the help of a renowned coach – and to do it right away.
Two years later, she was the model of icy precision on the world’s grandest stage. She took the lead on her first rotation, the vault, and never relinquished it. She knew it, too; in a serious breach of gymnastics tradition, she peeked at the scoreboard after every rotation.
“I just had to see,” she said.
Just as Tuesday’s team competition was a dominating victory for the Americans, so, too, was this. The final score was close, but it was not really as close as it sounds. Douglas ended with 62.232 points, followed by Russia’s Victoria Komova with 61.973. Russia’s Aliya Mustafina tied with American Aly Raisman for third with 59.566, but Mustafina won the bronze on a tiebreaker.
Douglas said she didn’t think about being the first African-American to win this title, but others certainly did. Veteran Olympic gold medalist Dominique Dawes was watching Douglas compete from the press tribune, trying to keep her hands from shaking.
“I am such a nervous ninny,” the 35-year-old Dawes said. “I feel like Gabby is my child or something. I am so anxious for her to win.”
In 1996 in Atlanta, Dawes, a member of the Magnificent Seven, was hoping to become the first African-American to win an individual all-around medal, but fell on the floor exercise and finished well out of the top three.
Sixteen years later, the history that Dawes hoped to achieve was made by Douglas.
“I know it will have an enormous impact on encouraging African-Americans and other minorities to go into the sport of gymnastics,” said Dawes, who is working as an analyst for foxsports.com here.
Dawes said she has received e-mails and messages on Twitter throughout these Games from women her age telling her that she was their role model.
“And now,” she said, “they are telling me that Gabby is the role model for their daughters.”
As Douglas talked to reporters, she never broke down, never shed a tear. The way she celebrated was the way she competed, with a calmness and confidence that she has been exuding throughout this spectacular year.
Dawes, on the other hand, couldn’t begin to control her emotions. The tears rolling down her cheeks were a long time coming.