LONDON — Might be time to get Gabby Douglas a new nickname.
Olympic champ works.
Known as “The Flying Squirrel,” Douglas won the women’s all-around title Thursday night, becoming the third straight American to win gymnastics’ biggest prize and the first African-American. It’s her second gold medal of the London Games, coming two nights after she and her “Fierce Five” teammates gave the United States its first Olympic title since 1996.
“I wanted to seize the moment,” Douglas said. “It hasn’t sunk in yet. Team finals hasn’t sunk in yet. But it will.”
In the lead from the first event, Douglas finished the night by rocking the O2 Arena with her electric floor routine, flashing a dazzling smile and lots of pizzazz. When her score posted 62.232, coach Liang Chow told Douglas she had won the gold.
But she had to wait another five minutes until it was official because Viktoria Komova of Russia, runner-up at last year’s world championships, was still to come.
Komova’s floor routine was impressive, as well, and she stood at the center of the arena staring intently at the scoreboard, fingertips pressed to her lips, teammate Aliya Mustafina rubbing her shoulder. When the final standings flashed, Komova dropped her head and hurried to the sidelines, tears falling. She finished about three-tenths behind Douglas, with a score of 61.973.
“I’m still upset because I could have been gold and I didn’t get it,” said Komova, her silver medal buried in the pocket of her warm-up jacket.
Mustafina and Aly Raisman finished with identical scores of 59.566, but the Russian got the bronze on a tiebreak. The lowest scores for both gymnasts were dropped, and the remaining three were totaled. That gave Mustafina a total of 45.933 and Raisman 45.366.
“It’s really disappointing, but I’m really happy for Gabby,” said Raisman, captain of the U.S. team. “But it’s definitely really frustrating because we tied for third place. I was so close.”
Douglas, meanwhile, is poised to become the biggest star since Mary Lou Retton. That smile alone is enough to make Madison Avenue swoon, and her personality might just be bigger than she is. (She claims she used to be shy, but it doesn’t seem possible listening to her chatter and giggle.) Throw in her sweet and sentimental backstory, and her two gold medals certainly won’t be her only riches.
It was two years ago that Douglas told her mom, Natalie Hawkins, that she wanted to move from their home in Virginia Beach, Va., to train with Chow, who coached Shawn Johnson in 2008. Hawkins said absolutely not; there was no way she was allowing the youngest of her four children to move halfway across the country at 14.
But Douglas’ two older sisters lobbied on her behalf, giving their mother a list of reasons why Gabby should be allowed to go. The only reason to stay: They would miss her.
Hawkins finally relented, but not without many second thoughts, including: “That I was crazy. I must have lost my marbles. But she wanted this more than anything.”
Few could have imagined this result a year ago. Jordyn Wieber was the world champion and heavy favorite, while Douglas was the one who was a total mess at the national championships. But she gained confidence as part of the U.S. team that took gold at the 2011 world championships, and proved to herself she was as good as anyone when she beat Wieber at the American Cup in March, never mind that her scores didn’t count because she was competing as an alternate.
After nearly beating Wieber at nationals, she came out on top three weeks later at the Olympic trials. And after Wieber failed to make the all-around because of a rule that limits countries to two gymnasts, Douglas became the one to beat.
“I don’t ever recall anybody this quickly rising from an average good gymnast to a fantastic one,” said national team coordinator Martha Karolyi, who gave Douglas her “Flying Squirrel” nickname.
As she did in Tuesday night’s team final, Douglas set the tone with the very first event, vault.
Once again doing the difficult Amanar — a roundoff onto the takeoff board, back handspring onto the table and 2.5 twisting somersaults before landing — Douglas took a small hop to the left and then another, putting her dangerously close to the out-of-bounds line. She never looked down, but it was clear she knew how close she was, twisting her upper body to the left to absorb the momentum and keep her legs from moving. She stayed in place — and in bounds — and her 15.966 gave her a lead she never relinquished.
Komova made it close on uneven bars, where she looks more like a little hummingbird as she flies between the bars. Her routine is incredibly difficult, yet she does it with such lightness and style. She took a small hop on her dismount, but camouflaged it by immediately thrusting her hands into the air and turning to salute the judges. When her score of 15.966 was announced, she nodded slightly as she zipped her Russian team warm-up all the way to her chin.
Next came balance beam, where both Komova and Douglas have struggled. Komova’s fall during the team competition at last year’s worlds hurt Russia’s chance of catching the Americans, while Douglas might have won the U.S. title if not for a fall on the second day of competition.
With the stakes higher than ever, however, both were clutch. Most of Komova’s tricks were landed with confidence, and her sheep jump — where she thrusts her head and arms back while kicking her feet behind her — was exquisite, the soles of her feet brushing her ponytail.
But Douglas did her one better. She brimmed with confidence as she whipped off a series of back handsprings, landing as easily and confidently as she had when she performed on the arena floor. She did a front somersault with such power the thud of her landing echoed inside the arena.
She took a small hop forward on her dismount, but it hardly mattered. The look on her face said it all: Yeah, I got this. Her score of 15.5 extended her lead over Komova to more than three-tenths of a point going into the final rotation, floor exercise.
And though Chow told her not to look at the scoreboard, Douglas admitted she peaked. A few times.
“After vault,” she said. “And bars. And beam. And floor.”
“She’s not a good listener,” Chow chimed in, smiling.
But knowing where she was didn’t hurt her performance.
While Douglas’ skills on floor are impressive — she gets more air than the NBA’s Carmelo Anthony, whom she and her teammates met the other day — it’s her personality that makes it a show-stopper. The crowd was clapping almost from the opening notes of her techno music, and she got downright sassy with her dance moves, directing playful grins at the judges.
“I love this routine,” she said. “I can express myself.”
Her score of 15.033 meant Komova needed a 15.36 or better to win. She didn’t come close, and Douglas grabbed herself another gold.
“I was like, ‘All the hard work has paid off,”’ she said.