Gabby Douglas wins gold in women's gymnastics



LONDON -- 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 existing traffic in the aisle parted.

A TV camera followed the family the whole way -- 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 Douglas' mother but not realizing that the woman with the long, flowing black hair and big smile was 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 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 felt plenty familiar.

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

For the last two and a half 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 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, Hawkins got her wish, and millions back home would soon be introduced to America's new sweetheart. 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, Douglas 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, Douglas wasn't thinking along such grandiose lines.

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

Douglas 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 something. It was raining. Her mother often told her as a child that rain was God sending a sign that something good was about to happen. Gabby pulled out her cell phone and sent 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," Hawkins said.

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

Douglas got her day on the mat started quickly, nailing her vault with a 15.966, giving her a half-point cushion over Komova. She lost a little bit of her lead on the uneven bars, Komova's best event, and just barely edged Komova on the balance beam. Entering the final event, floor exercise, Douglas led by .326.

Her floor exercise routine was inspired, and when Douglas 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 15.359.

Douglas watched Komova's entire floor routine with Chow by her side. 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," Douglas 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 shared the last 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."

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J. Brady McCollough: bmccollough@post-gazette.com and on Twitter @BradyMcCollough. First Published August 2, 2012 5:30 PM


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