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Douglas embraces opportunity
On Thursday, having already helped her team claim the women’s gymnastics team gold medal,
This is history in the making, a 16-year-old taking her own shot at Olympic immortality, and it would culminate a remarkable journey for a gymnast who has been ascending to the top of this sport since the spring.
Douglas first flashed her growing possibilities in May in New York when she bested the score of the darling of American gymnastics, Jordyn Wieber, at the American Cup. She did not win because she’d competed as an alternate, and even then the whispers swirling around that success were that she only scored so well because it did not count.
Once the pressure tightened its grip on her, the thinking went, she would falter.
Then, at the U.S. Olympic trials in San Jose, where the pressure was absolutely immense, she took home the highest score. Suddenly the little girl who was supposed to struggle in Wieber’s shadow was morphing into the powerhouse of the U.S. team. By the time Wieber faltered in the qualifying round Sunday and failed to qualify for the all-around finals, Douglas had become America’s best hope for that gold medal.
And all that talk she could not handle the pressure? Just words in the wind, so far.
“Yeah, everyone will put pressure on me, but you try to ignore it, perform, have fun,” she said this week. “I enjoy this.”
She’s also excelled. While teammate Aly Raisman took home the top score in the qualifying round to join Douglas at Thursday’s individual all-around finals, it’s Douglas who carries her country’s best hope for gold. Raisman is solid and steady, and she could yet again surprise, but it’s Douglas who has the most upside and the best shot at winning.
She is an artist as much as an athlete, with grace and speed that judges love and that make her one of the favorites. Concerns that she cannot handle the spotlight remain – they were reinforced by her ugly floor exercise in qualifying in which she slipped well out of bounds and that almost kept her out of the all-around instead of Wieber.
“I haven’t had a step out of bounds for a while so I was like, ‘Oh!’ ” she said. “I’ve kept them in check by doing a lot of pressure sets in the gym and my coach told me to believe in myself and never doubt.”
Still, that routine aside, she has been fabulous, poised and able despite the immense stakes riding on every movement at these Games. At the team finals, she put up a 15.966 score on the vault. Then, with her teammates having put up mediocre scores on the uneven bars, Douglas went to work, earning the nickname Marta Karolyi gave her: The flying squirrel. When the whirling grace ended, she’d scored a 15.2, pointing the Americans toward team gold.
She was fabulous the rest of the way, earning a 15.233 on the balance beam and a 15.066 on the floor exercise.
Karolyi has said this week Douglas is on the way up – an athlete peaking at the right moment, one handling the spotlight as if she were born to perform under it.
“She stayed calm and showed her mental toughness under the pressure,” said her coach, Liang Chow. “We’re very pleased.”
They should be. Douglas left home at age 14, moving from Virginia Beach to Des Moines, Iowa, to be near Chow’s gym. She lived with a sponsor family. She gave up everything she knew to pursue this moment and she, too, has big dreams she’s wagered are worth the sacrifice.
Finally, on Tuesday, it will be her chance to try and realize them.
“It’s just an amazing feeling to have this chance,” she said. “It motivates me when people have said, ‘You can’t do this.’ I can do this. It gives me that extra drive.”
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