Olympic gymnast Gabby Douglas set bar high, realizes her golden dream

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LONDON -- Out of breath and in a state of delirium, a mother, two sisters and a brother quickly shuffled from their seats to the other side of North Greenwich Arena. They wore matching navy blue Team USA jackets, and, as they made their way down the stairs to get closer to the floor, the traffic in the aisle parted.

A TV camera followed the family -- a sure preview of what's to come in the young life of Gabrielle "Gabby" Douglas after Thursday night.

"Momma Douglas!" a man shouted, correctly identifying Gabby's mother but not realizing that the woman with the long, flowing black hair and big smile is actually named Natalie Hawkins.

She settled on the front row, surrounded by loved ones, and watched as her 16-year-old daughter took the top of the podium and had a gold medal draped around her neck. The "Star-Spangled Banner" played, and Ms. Hawkins turned and looked up to her right, where the American flag stood taller than two Russian ones. The scene was unfathomable. Luckily, there was one emotion that was plenty familiar.

"I just can't wait to hug her!" Ms. Hawkins said.

For the past 2 1/2 years, that natural mother's desire has been ever-present. The Douglas family traded in hugs for Skype sessions at all hours of the day when Gabby decided at 14 that she wanted to move from her home in Virginia Beach, Va., to West Des Moines, Iowa, to train with coach Liang Chow. She wanted to be an Olympian, but Ms. Hawkins wanted to be her mother, and she couldn't do that properly 1,200 miles away.

Ultimately, Mom relented, setting her daughter free to pursue a distant dream and hoping that, someday, she'd come back to her a fulfilled and happy young woman.

Thursday, Ms. Hawkins got her wish, and millions back home were introduced to America's new sweetheart. Gabby Douglas won the individual all-around competition with a score of 62.232, beating Russians Viktoria Komova (61.973) and Aliya Mustafina (59.566).

In doing so, she became the first American gymnast to win gold in the all-around and the team competition. She also became the first African-American to win the all-around at the Olympics.

Of course, being a 16-year-old and all, Gabby wasn't thinking along such grandiose lines.

"Oh yeah," she said, "I kind of forgot about that. Man, that's awesome. To be the first, you know, African-American to win the Olympics, yeah, that's definitely an amazing feeling. I forgot about that."

Then she let out a loud giggle. Yes, America, get ready. The "Flying Squirrel" is coming to your television sets and celebrity magazines, and her toothy smile and continuous use of the phrase "and, um" are unlikely to go anywhere for a while.

Gabby has already looked ahead to the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games and decided the prognosis is good for her to go for a repeat.

Her mother and sisters are OK with that. They've seen the benefits of their sacrifice.

"I miss her very much," said her 17-year-old brother, John. "We're really close. I took it the hardest when she moved, but my mom and my sisters supported me. I'm very proud. I can't believe my sister did it. It's so surreal. This is her moment."

There was a feeling earlier in the day Thursday that something special was bound to happen.

On the way to the arena, Gabby noticed it was raining. Her mother often told her child that rain was God sending a sign that something good was about to happen. Gabby pulled out her cell phone and sent Ms. Hawkins a text message.

"It's raining," Gabby told her. "You know what that means."

"It's a thing we have between the two of us," Ms. Hawkins said.

They've missed out on so much these past few years, but they still had that mother-daughter intuition.

Gabby got her day on the mat started quickly, nailing her vault with a 15.966, giving her a half-point cushion over Ms. Komova. She lost a little bit of her lead on the uneven bars, Ms. Komova's best event, and just barely edged Ms. Komova on the balance beam.

Entering the final event, floor exercise, Gabby led by .326.

Her floor exercise routine was inspired, and when she walked off the mat, she immediately waved to the adoring crowd, which had serenaded her with chants of "Come on, Gabby!" all night.

When her 15.033 flashed above, she knew she had done all she could. But there was still a chance Komova could beat her with a 15.360.

Gabby watched her opponent's entire floor routine with Mr. Chow by her side. Ms. Komova appeared to give the judges plenty to think about. Then, another agonizing wait. The two Russian gymnasts hugged each other and looked expectantly at the scoreboard.

"My heart was racing," Gabby said. "Do I have it? Do I not have it? Am I first? Am I second?"

15.100. First.

Natalie Hawkins and her children jumped up and down, giving out those all-important hugs they'd saved the past few years for their absent sister. Gabby was bold enough to fashion a dream that would take her away, and talented and driven enough to make it all come true.

Still, she said, "I never pictured this."

"Every pain, every struggle, everything," Natalie Hawkins said, "has been worth it."


J. Brady McCollough: bmccollough@post-gazette.com and on Twitter @BradyMcCollough. First Published August 3, 2012 4:00 AM


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