America: Meet your new sweetheart

Gabby Douglas talks about her Olympic trials performance
Gabby Douglas talks about her Olympic trials performance
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Reid Forgrave

Reid Forgrave has worked for the Des Moines Register, the Cincinnati Enquirer and the Seattle Times. His work has been recognized by Associated Press Sports Editors, the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists and the Society for Features Journalism. Follow him on Twitter.


SAN JOSE, Calif.

Natalie Hawkins sat in Section 114, row 25 of the HP Pavilion, her hands clasped tightly in her lap. Her seat was situated directly in front of the uneven bars at Sunday’s Olympic trials for US women’s gymnastics, which was convenient, because in just a moment her youngest daughter, the joy-filled 16-year-old gymnast Gabby Douglas, was due to jump on the bars and prove that, yes, she did deserve to be an Olympian.

Or perhaps Gabby’s mom’s seat placement wasn’t so convenient. For a gymnastic mother like Hawkins, there have been few moments in life as tense as this one, and maybe it would be better to just look away. Gabby had just sprung into first place over the reigning all-around world champion, Jordyn Wieber, with a high-flying 16.0 on the vault. Now there were only three more apparatuses to go before Gabby could beat Wieber in a meet for the first time ever and win the Olympic trials.

“Now, on the uneven bars, Gabby Douglas!” the announcer shouted.

“Whooooooo,” Hawkins breathed.

Mom was silent and so was the arena as Gabby launched into her routine. Jump to the high bar, a pirouette, a spin. Then she swung herself to the low bar and — mom caught her breath — nearly lost her grip. But Gabby kept her hands on the bar, swung around the low bar, then back to the top bar, around and around and into a double layout, landing with just a little hop.

“Oh my God!” Hawkins screamed after her daughter’s uneven bar routine, which at 15.9 was the best of the trials. “Oh my God!”

There were two more events to go before Gabby’s place on the team was solidified. But come on — even if she didn’t get first place in the trials and the automatic Olympic berth that came with it, there was no way the selection committee was denying this powerful sprite a place on the team. Right?

“You don’t want to take anything for granted,” her mother said nervously. “I have faith. I don’t want to be a doubting Thomas. But I want to hear her name.”

It’s an understandable feeling, given all that went into Gabby’s rollercoaster ride to the Olympics. The first step was when she watched her television in awe when Carly Patterson won the all-around gold in 2004. That’s when Gabby was bit by the gymnastics bug. The second step was in 2008, when Gabby sat at her home in Virginia and watched as Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson led the Americans to a team silver in Beijing. “I can do what they’re doing,” 12-year-old Gabby told her mom. “I can make the Olympics!”

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There were just a few spots available on the USA team for the men at the Olympic trials. Check out the best photos from this weekend’s action.

Then came age 14, when Gabby packed her bags and moved to West Des Moines, Iowa. There she trained with Johnson’s coach, Liang Chow. She left behind her family, she left behind her friends, and she moved in with Missy and Travis Parton, a loving family with daughters in gymnastics. They took her in as their own. They coaxed her through homesickness, they helped her through typical teen-girl dramas, they talked with her when she was sad about not hearing from her father, who is divorced from her mother and last year was serving a tour in Afghanistan with the Air Force.

“I give her a lot of credit for moving away from home,” Chow said. “I wasn’t wanting to take her. When she was talking to me in person, express herself, her desire to go to the Olympics — it was very hard saying no to a 14-year-old girl.”

But Chow said yes, and Gabby worked hard, and now here she was, on the final step of her Olympic journey: just two more apparatuses to go. She’d gotten text messages from Johnson, her training partner, earlier in the day, telling her to just relax and be herself. She’d seen her mother for a few seconds as she boarded the team bus after Friday night’s competition. She’d watched the movie “Thor” the night before to take her mind off things. But now, heading into her beam routine, Gabby was all focus.

But then she turned in a not-perfect beam routine — not bad, but with a couple of wobbles. The good part: She worked through the wobbles and didn’t fall off, scoring a 14.85. Gabby went over to her final rotation of trials, her floor routine. She was still in first place, but not by much.

And guess what? She killed it. She smiled, she strutted, she pulled off an Arabian double front to a single stag, she stuck her landing. A 15.3 — which made her mother jump and clap, which made Gabby do “The Dougie” for the TV cameras and which put Gabby 0.1 higher than Wieber.

All of which meant she was the winner of the trials and guaranteed a spot on the Olympic team.

A little while later, after the selection committee etched the names of the 2012 US women’s Olympic team in stone, Gabby led her teammates from the bowels of the HP Pavilion out to the arena. The arena erupted in a standing ovation. Tears streamed, and mascara ran down Gabby’s face, same as her four Olympic teammates: Wieber, of course, along with Aly Raisman, McKayla Maroney and Kyla Ross, with Sarah Finnegan, Elizabeth Price and Anna Li as alternates.

“I’m very happy for our little Flying Squirrel,” national team coordinator Martha Karolyi said, referring to Gabby’s nickname. “She was one of those who had to overcome some stuff. Because she was very much doubtful that mentally she was able to handle that. Tonight, she proved that she can. She proved that as the time went by, every competition she became better, better, more stable, handling the shaky situations, being able when something roughens up in her routine, to hold up, to not jump off, take the deduction for the mistake but don’t give up. That’s a great transformation on her.”

Nearby sat Gabby, surrounded by reporters, her congratulatory bouquet of roses sitting at her feet. Again and again, tiny little Gabby just kept saying how happy she was, how honored she was, how all the glory went to God. She didn’t mention that her family is still trying to figure a way to fund their own trip to London in a few weeks — they’re selling “Team Gabby” T-shirts and posters on her Facebook fan page — because, after all, this was a moment of triumph, not a moment to think about the struggles.

She said this isn’t the time to relax and celebrate; this is the time to keep pushing. She talked about the power of positive thinking. She sounded very much like an adult, and it was easy to forget, for just a moment, that these five young ladies who’ll capture our hearts and our prime-time TV hours in a few weeks in London are all just teenagers.

Then Gabby, talking about all the support she’s gotten from people on this journey, mentioned what part of London to which she’s most looking forward. A part of London that has nothing to do with gymnastics.

“Hopefully I can catch some accents from there, because I’ve always wanted an accent,” she said. And then Gabby Douglas, America’s newest sweetheart, flashed her toothy, winning grin.

Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave or email him at reidforgrave@gmail.com.

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