LONDON — Gabby Douglas believed two years ago, when she convinced her mother to let her move halfway across the country.
National team coordinator Martha Karolyi became a convert over the winter, when the bubbly teenager with the electric smile developed the tenacity required to be a champion.
Under the brightest lights, on the biggest stage, that belief shattered a glass ceiling.
Even if the first African-American to win an Olympic all-around title didn’t quite realize it.
“I kind of forgot about that,” Douglas said with a laugh.
Don’t worry, Gabby, the world is going to have fun reminding you.
Douglas soared her way into history Thursday night, leading the whole way to climb a mountain paved by Ron Galimore, Dominique Dawes and a handful of others who showed the sport isn’t just for the White or the privileged.
“How inspiring is that?” said Natalie Hawkins, the woman who allowed her then 14-year-old “baby” daughter to move from Virginia to Iowa in 2010 after Douglas convinced her that she was good enough to compete at the top.
She didn’t have to wait long to find out.
Douglas was still trying to get used to the feeling of having her second gold medal in three days around her neck when Oprah chimed in.
“OMG I’m so THRILLED for Gabby. Flowing happy tears!!” Winfrey posted on Twitter.
Karolyi, the U.S. women’s team coordinator called it “history made” while Liang Chow, the coach who channeled Douglas’ precocious talent, believes his star pupil is “ready to move onto higher things.”
She certainly looked like it on a flawless night in which Douglas grabbed the gold during her first event and never let silver medalist Viktoria Komova of Russia come close to wrenching it from her hands.
Explosive on vault and exquisite on uneven bars, Douglas never trailed. Though she sealed the third straight women’s all-around title for an American with a floor routine that delighted the O2 Arena crowd, it was her pretty set on beam that provided the difference.
The event is a 90-second test of nerves, a twisting, turning ballet on a 4-inch slab of wood 4 feet off the ground. And for months, Douglas struggled to find a rhythm on it.
She led the national championships after the first day, only to hop off the beam moments into her first rotation of the finals, opening the door for world champion and friendly rival Jordyn Wieber to claim the title.
Wieber watched the Olympic finals from 20 rows up in the stands with the rest of Team USA after failing to make it out of qualifying. Teammate Aly Raisman never really recovered from a workmanlike set on bars and an uncharacteristic wobble on beam.
Raisman ended up tying with Russia’s Aliya Mustafina for third, but the steely Russian earned the bronze on a tiebreaker, a wrenching setback for the American captain, an integral part of the group that won the first U.S. team gold in 16 years on Tuesday.
There were no such technicalities involved with Douglas, not even on the beam. She dazzled with a sparkling 15.5, never wavering, never wobbling, never losing focus.
This was the same girl who was so out of sorts when the team arrived in London a couple of weeks ago that Karolyi ordered Chow to give her a little pep talk?
Chow’s message that day wasn’t complicated. He urged Douglas to ignore the pain in her leg from a minor muscle strain and get down to business.
“He just said that everyone has pain, so just go out there and you know, why are you focused on that?” Douglas said. “He said, ‘You’re at the Olympics, and put that behind you, and, if you don’t push it now you don’t have a chance, you’ll regret it.'”
She didn’t. Not after winning her mother over with the idea her future lay in Iowa with Chow instead of her family’s home in Virginia Beach. Not after those long days in the gym when she would ask herself, “Why do I have to do this?” only to go and do it anyway.
And not after a little boost from Karolyi. The legendary coach made Douglas a surprising choice for the American Cup in New York in March. At the time, Karolyi said she just wanted Douglas to get some needed experience against a talented field.
But she knew.
She’d known for months.
She’d seen it during the training camps at the Karolyi Ranch north of Houston, where Douglas started to showcase the world-class talent Chow had spent a year unlocking.
Douglas went and won the whole thing that day at Madison Square Garden as an alternate, the asterisk next to her name officially making her ineligible for the title actually won by Wieber.
Still, the message had been sent. Douglas was ready.
“I foresee it,” Karolyi said. “She charged every single competition she did better and better.”
By then, Douglas’ mom was won over. She raised four kids largely on her own, and tearfully made the decision to let her youngest train with Chow. She doubted herself but looked at the list of “pros” and “cons” her eldest daughter wrote up, and understood go she had to let go. Just a little.
Even if it hurt.
“I must have lost my marbles,” Hawkins said. “But she wanted this more than anything.”
And Douglas worked like it. Chow believes she just needed time to grow up. She’s just 16.
Funny, she certainly looked all grown up on Thursday night. On a night that would turn most girls her age to tears, Douglas smiled. She laughed. She acted as if she expected to be here all along.
“She demonstrated she is an Olympic champion,” Chow said.
One that could have a major influence on her sport.
Unlike some of her peers, Douglas looks like she’s having fun out there. There is no drama when she competes, just joy. She has an energy that will make advertising executives swoon and likely turn her into a millionaire in the near future.
But this was never about money. It wasn’t even about breaking down barriers. It was simply about challenging herself.
She never doubted she could be the best. Even when she was the only one who thought so.
“I wanted to seize the moment,” she said.
History was just a bonus.
— Associated Press