Gymnast 'Flying Squirrel' Gabby Douglas Makes History

10:26 PM, Aug 2, 2012   |    comments
Gabby Douglas photo by USA Today
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LONDON - As Gabby Douglas bounded from one rotation to another on what would become one of the most historic days in women's gymnastics, veteran Olympic gold medalist Dominique Dawes watched 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, Douglas made it happen, thanks to her incredible talent, combined with a soothing combination of calmness and confidence.

Douglas, the first African-American gymnast to win the most revered title in her sport, becomes the first U.S. gymnast to win both the team and individual all-around gold medals. She becomes the fourth American to win the title, and the third in a row.

Holy Mary Lou Retton, we're on to something here.

Just as she was in the team competition Tuesday night, the 16-year-old Douglas was the model of icy precision in the individual all-around. She took the lead on the first rotation for both Americans and Russians, the vault, and never relinquished it. She knew it, too. In a break from gymnastics tradition, she peeked at the scoreboard after every rotation. "I just had to see," she said.

USA's Gabby Douglas takes gold in women's all-around

Just as Tuesday's team competition was a dominating victory for the Americans, so, too, was this. The final score was close but not really as close as it looked. 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 was simply a rising, still-rather-unknown star, with nowhere near the résumé of reigning world champion Jordyn Wieber, when she showed up at the American Cup at Madison Square Garden in early March. At last year's world championships, for instance, her best individual finish was fifth on the uneven bars.

In New York, she competed as an exhibition athlete, meaning her scores didn't count and yet she finished higher than Wieber. Afterward, while Wieber gave the typical, rather sterile answers of a top teenage gymnast, Douglas fairly exploded in a brief one-on-one interview.

I asked her 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, it was only natural to believe you'd just talked to the future Olympic gold medalist.

Even the experts are shaking their heads now. "I don't ever recall anybody this quickly rising from an average good gymnast to a fantastic one," national team coordinator Marta Karolyi said.

When it was over, Dawes almost couldn't believe what she had witnessed.

"It is very historic," said Dawes, who is working as analyst for here. "I know it will have an enormous impact on encouraging African Americans and other minorities to go into the sport of gymnastics."

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."

Douglas said afterward that she didn't realize she was the first woman of color to win the title. "I just wanted to be the best I could be today," she said. "I wanted to give it my all. I wanted to put my body on the line and give it my all. It just feels amazing to be called the Olympic champion."

As she 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 exuded throughout this spectacular year.

By Christine Brennan, USA Today

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