'Flying Squirrel' ready to soar at London Olympics
When Gabby Douglas flashes that dazzling smile and saunters across the arena floor as if she owns the place, the concept seems downright impossible.
This bubbly 16-year-old was once ... shy?
''I used to be sooo shy,'' she said with a giggle. ''Now I'm like, `Lah, lah, lah. Lah, lah, lah. ... I'm just ready to go out there and perform. I'm so ready to take on this journey.''
It's going to be quite a trip.
Not only has Douglas emerged as world champion Jordyn Wieber's main rival, finishing a mere 0.2 points behind at the U.S. gymnastics championships two weeks ago, she could be the brightest star on a powerful U.S. team that could turn the London Olympics into its own heavy medal show. With cover girl looks, a personality that leaps through the TV set and a nickname you won't soon forget, Douglas has all the makings of the next Mary Lou or Shawn.
The U.S. team will be picked Sunday, following the Olympic trials in San Jose, Calif. Barring an injury, Douglas is considered a lock for London along with Wieber and Aly Raisman. In addition to the team competition and all-around, Douglas has medal potential on uneven bars, where her release moves are so big and effortless that national team coordinator Martha Karolyi has dubbed her the ''Flying Squirrel.''
''She is who you see,'' said Missy Parton, whose family took Douglas in after she finally convinced her mother to let her move from her home in Virginia Beach, Va., to West Des Moines, Iowa, to train. ''She loves to joke and tease. She's very animated and very personable, and she's got that smile that's contagious. You can't help but fall in love with her.''
Though ''bad mood'' doesn't seem to be part of Douglas' vocabulary - she swears you don't want to go near her if she's hungry or tired - there is a fierce determination behind her sunny personality.
There has to be to pick up and move halfway across the country at all of 14 to pursue a goal few others saw at the time.
''I could never have imagined this scenario,'' said Natalie Hawkins, Douglas' mother. ''I knew the talent was there because everybody, anybody who came in contact with me, coaches, other gym parents, always told me how talented she was. So I knew that. And I knew if she had the right pieces of the puzzle that she would have the potential. But all of this? No, I never saw that.''
Watching the 2008 Olympics, Douglas had been impressed by the warm relationship Shawn Johnson had with her coach, Liang Chow, and how happy Chow always seemed. That, Douglas told her mother, was who she wanted to train with. Two years later, after Chow came to do a camp at Douglas' gym in Virginia Beach, she was sure of it.
She had made incredible progress in a matter of hours with Chow, learning one of the most difficult vaults in the world that takes most gymnasts months, if not years, to get. She thrived on his positive attitude and encouragement. If she could train with him full time, Douglas knew the Olympics would be within her reach.
There was just one problem: Chow's gym is in Iowa, and there was no way Hawkins was uprooting her family. Douglas has three older siblings, and all were still in school at the time. Her father, no longer married to her mother, was back and forth to Afghanistan as part of the Air National Guard.
''I used to tell her all the time, `You need to suck it up. You need to suck it up and just deal with it because I'm not going to pick up the family and move. I'm not going to just send you away,''' Hawkins said.
But one day, Hawkins' two oldest daughters came to her with a hand-written list of all the reasons Douglas should be allowed to train in Iowa.
The only reason for her to stay: They would miss her.
''Before I called Chow I was literally sick to my stomach because I thought, `I am really going to do this. I'm going to send my child away to someone I don't know, to live with a host family that I've never met, know nothing about,''' Hawkins said. ''And I have to be OK with this. I'm going to be in Virginia, she's going to be all the way in Iowa. How do you come to terms with that?''
Fortunately, after living with another host family for a few months, Douglas was taken in by Parton and her husband, Travis. The couple has four daughters, and immediately treated Douglas as if she was their fifth. She was given her own room, something she'd never had before. They brought her along to weddings and other family events. They took her to the State Fair (the butter cow was ''awesome''). When the family got passes for the local pool last summer, Douglas got one, too.
And after Hawkins' first few visits, the Partons told her to stop wasting her money on hotel rooms and just stay at their house. They stopped taking money for hosting Douglas, too.
''I couldn't imagine a better place for her to be,'' Hawkins said. ''They literally take care of her like she's their child.''
Said Parton, ''She is one of our children. We treat her no different - I can't imagine treating her any different. If I were to make her feel the odd man out, that situation would affect every part of her life. If I weren't to treat her as much as my own as much as I possibly can, that would affect her training. She probably wouldn't be where she was right now.''
Douglas now refers to Parton as her ''second mom'' - Hawkins and Missy Parton wore matching T-shirts at nationals - and revels in being a ''big sister'' for the first time in her life. She has movie nights with the Parton girls, does their nails and, in true big sister fashion, even gets on them to pick up their socks when they leave them on the floor.
That's not to say Douglas' move was easy. Far from it.
Her family is tight-knit, and she was so homesick the first year it was like a physical ache. When she got a message from one of her sisters that they were on their way to the premiere of the latest ''Twilight' movie, something they'd always done together, Douglas couldn't help herself: She sobbed. She missed her dogs and the beach, and she hated the cold.
A hamstring injury that limited her training last spring and summer didn't help. She finished a disappointing seventh at the 2011 U.S. championships after falling on pretty much every event.
As recently as January, she was questioning whether the sacrifices were worth it.
''It was my decision and my dream, so I couldn't back down and be a wimp,'' Douglas said. ''I'm so happy and thrilled that I stayed. If I'd have went home, I wouldn't have accomplished all (this).''
After helping the Americans win their third team title at the world championships last fall, Douglas had a breakout performance at the American Cup in March. Showing off a new vault and an upgraded uneven bars routine, Douglas was dazzling, looking very much at home in the bright lights at Madison Square Garden. She actually finished ahead of Wieber and Raisman, though her scores did not count because she was competing as an alternate.
She showed that was no fluke at nationals. After finishing the first day of competition tied with Wieber, Douglas wound up a close second, the difference being her fall off balance beam.
Despite the fall, Douglas bopped around the floor with a grin on her face, looking as if she was having the time of her life. That little girl who was so painfully shy she'd hide behind her mother is long gone, and the world is now hers for the taking.
''Always seize the moment. Always,'' Douglas said. ''You're not going to have these golden years forever, so enjoy it.''
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