In the pantheon of sports nicknames, one would be hard-pressed to find a more delightful or descriptive one than The Flying Squirrel. Gabby Douglas had a little something to do with that. In the span of a few months, she emerged from relative obscurity to streak across the sports radar and into the hearts of a billion Olympic viewers. What she lacked in experience she made up for with wide-eyed enthusiasm and explosive talent. Along the way, Gabby learned a thing or two about leadership and teamwork, as the U.S. squad won gymnastics gold for the first time since the Magnificent Seven burned it up in Atlanta. Is Rio 2016 really four years away? Gabby can hardly wait! This is her story…

GROWING UP

Gabrielle Christina Victoria Douglas was born on December 31, 1995 in Virginia Beach, Virginia. (Click here for today's sports birthdays.) She was the youngest of Timothy Douglas and Natalie Hawkins’s four children, including Jonathan, Joyelle and Arielle. Arielle was the first Douglas girl to excel in gymnastics. She taught Gabby some basic moves. By the age of three, Gabby could do a one-handed cartwheel.

In 2002, when Gabby was six, Arielle convinced her mom to enroll Gabby in gymnastics classes. At age 8, she joined Excalibur Gymnastics, a six-year-old facility run by Dena and Jim Walker, along with Gustavo Moure, an Argentine coach of considerable renown. The gym already was building a reputation for turning out college- and national-level gymnasts.

As Gabby showed increasing promise, Dena Walker focused on her floor exercises and balance beam, while Moure tutored her on the uneven bars and the vault. It was Moure who taught her the basics of the Amanar vault, a two-and-a-half twist that is very difficult and risky from a penalty standpoint if not done perfectly.

What Gabby brought to the party was incredible athleticism. Harnessing that talent and sharpening her competitive edge was the job of the Excalibur staff. Almost from the start, Gabby demonstrated an ability to compete. In 2004, she entered the Virginia State Championships and walked away with the Level 4 all-around title. Level 4 involves compulsory exercises, whereas Levels 1 through 3 are limited to the basics. She was on her way.

Over the next few years, Gabby became very close with the Walker family. She became best friends with their daughter, Chase. The Walkers taught Gabby how to swim in their pool and acted as surrogate parents on the various trips that the Excalibur team took. Gabby’s father had been deployed overseas in 2005 as a member of the Air National Guard, so the Walker family provided her with some stability as Natalie struggled to make ends meet as a de facto single parent.

In 2010, Gabby made her first splash as a Junior on the national scene at the Nastia Liukin Supergirl Cup, an even for non-elite Level 10 gymnasts. She performed well and finished fourth. Moving up to elite level later that season, Gabby finished third in the balance beam at the CoverGirl Classic and ninth overall in the junior division of that competition. At the U.S. Junior National Champions, Gabby continued to impress, finishing runner-up on the beam and fourth in the all-around and vault.

Later in 2010, Gabby competed in the Pan Am Championships, in Mexico. There, she took gold on the uneven bars. The U.S. squad won team gold, and Gabby finished fifth in the all-around. Martha Karolyi, head of the US national team, marveled at her precision. It was Karolyi who would later coin the nickname, The Flying Squirrel. She was amazed by the height that Gabby attained on the uneven barss.

What should have been a stepping stone for Gabby, however, soon devolved into a bitter controversy. Shortly after the Pan Am Championships, Natalie cleaned out Gabby’s locker at Exaclibur and decided to move her daughter to Iowa—where she would train with Liang Chow. Chow owned a gym in Des Moines and had been the coach of Shawn Johnson, the all-around silver medalist at the 2008 Olympics. Gabby stayed with a host family, the Partons, who had four daughters. There was much homesicknesses in the first couple of months, plus a lot of doubt on Natalie’s part that she was doing the right thing by Gabby. They missed each other terribly.

Gabby had first met Chow when she was 12—ironically during a clinic at the Excalibur facility. Gabby was impressed by his knowledge of the vault and also with the relationship he had with his star pupil, Johnson.

For his part, Chow was skeptical when Natalie first approached him. He didn’t want to be seen as a “coach who poached.” Initially, in fact, Chow informed the Walkers about what was going on. Also, the idea that he could transform a still-unknown gymnast into an Olympian in 20 months seemed a little crazy. Eventually, however, Chow agreed.


 

 

 

 

 


Excalibur Gym ad

     
 

Moure and the Walkers were stunned and angry. Beyond coaching, the Walkers had supported Gabby through some tumultuous issues at home and also went out-of-pocket on her growing expenses. Natalie, now unable to work because of a medical condition, was relying on child support and disability checks to pay the bills. Bankruptcy loomed over the family much of the time and Gabby’s siblings all had to make sacrifices. Needless to say, that didn’t leave anything for her traveling expenses.

Knowing that Gabby would soon be drawing $2,000 monthly from USA Gymnastics, the Walkers agreed to wait for those checks to start coming before they were paid back. According to the Walkers, they never saw a penny. Gabby’s mother has countered these claims, maintaining that Gabby was on full scholarship at Excalibur, which covered those expenses.

Natalie also said that the decision to move her daughter to Iowa was triggered by the refusal of Dena Walker and Moure to settle differences that had developed in their coaching philosophies. She claimed they argued in front of Gabby, and that it was beginning to erode her confidence.

ON THE RISE

Chow’s job was to apply the finishing touches to a job already well done. By all accounts, he did just that—with encouragement from Johnson, who trained alongside Gabby for over a year before retiring in 2012. Competing as a member of the U.S. team in senior competition for the first time at age 15, Gabby had superb outings in Italy and Chicago. At the 2011 U.S. Championships in August, she placed third in the uneven bars and finished seventh all-around.

Hanley got back into a groove in August and September, batting .341 in the final two months and keeping the Marlins within sniffing distance of a Wild Card berth. They faded over the season’s last 10 days, however, and finished 78–84.

From the summer of 2011 to the spring of 2012, Gabby trained like a demon and transformed herself into a fierce and focused competitor. At the 2011 World Championships in October, she was the youngest athlete in the competition, but she performed well on the uneven bars to help Team USA take home the gold medal.


Gabby Douglas, NBC promo
     
 

Gabby’s big breakthrough performance came at the 2012 American Cup at Madison Square Garden in March. She was an alternate, so her scores technically didn’t count. However, she out-pointed everyone else at the competition, including Jordyn Wieber, the reigning all-around world champion. Later that month, Gabby won gold in the uneven bars at the Pacific Rim Championships in Seattle.

Now some were predicting that Gabby was a shoo-in for the Olympic squad and perhaps an early favorite for gold in London. The only lingering doubt was whether she could edge top gymnasts like Wieber under pressure. At the U.S. Championships, Gabby had a shot at winning the all-around but fell on the balance beam, one of her best events. Was she ready for the Olympic spotlight, or did she need more seasoning?

Gabby finally answered this question at the U.S, Olympic Trials. She exploded through her vault to move into first place in the all-around and never looked back. She then extended her lead with a powerful performance on the uneven bars. A glitch in the beam gave Wieber a chance to get back in with a strong vault. She scored high enough to put the pressure back on Gabby.

Gabby began her floor exercise needing a score of 15.25 to edge Wieber for the all-around title and an automatic berth on the Olympic team. She put on a dazzling exhibition and got a bear hug from Chow as she left the floor. The judges gave her a 15.3, crowning her the new queen of American gymnastics.

In London, the U.S. squad looked to take home its first team gold since Atlanta in 1996. The team featured Wieber, McKayla Marony, Aly Raisman and Kyla Ross. From the outset, this group showed it could dominate. In the team competition, the Americans—led by Wieber—performed eye-popping vaults to build a solid lead, and they cruised to victory over Russia by five points. Three brilliant beam routines gave them an unassailable lead heading into the floor exercises. At that point,Gabby and teammates Raisman and Wieber slammed the door to grab the gold.

MAKING HER MARK  

Now it was Gabby’s turn to step into the spotlight. She had qualified for the finals in the individual all-around, as well as the uneven bars and balance beam. The all-around finals came next. The experts were split on how she would do. On the one hand, Gabby was unquestionably the most talented all-around gymnast on the U.S. team. However, she was also the most likely to commit a major error.

As the all-around events unfolded, it became clear that Gabby had brought her A-game. But Russian star Victoria Komova was also at her best. They would duel to the very end for the gold medal. Gabby began with a glorious Amanar vault, but she took the slightest sidestep on the landing. The judges were kind, giving her a score of 15.966, and she led the competition after one rotation.

Komova’s best event, the uneven bars, was next. She was brilliant, earning a score of 15.966. But Gabby wowed the judges with her high-flying release to score a 15.733. On the beam—the third of four rotations in the all-around—Gabby took a couple of balance checks but finished cleanly. Komova was a bit wobbly, which cost her in the eyes of the judges. Aliya Mustafina, whose great routine on the bars put her into the medal picture, fell off the beam, ending any chance she had at challenging Gabby. 


Jordyn Wieber (bottom left),
2012 US Magazine
     
 

Heading into the final rotation, the floor exercise, Gabby clung to a .36-point lead. She was excellent under pressure, delivering a clean, precise performance. Komova, however, was just as good—and maybe even better. She nailed every landing and exceeded Gabby in terms of difficulty. The Russian’s score, however, fell just short of what she needed for first place. Gabby finished with a score of 62.232 to win the gold medal.

After wowing the world with her all-around gold, Gabby showed her youth and inexperience in the bar and beam finals. She finished eighth out of eight competitors in the uneven bars and slipped during her balance beam routine, finishing next to last.

In the days following Gabby’s Olympic triumph, out came the lovers and the haters. Unknown to most sports fans two weeks earlier, she was now the most intensely followed athlete in the world. The acclaim and superlatives were non-stop. Some sports marketing experts predicted she could make as much as $90 million. Gabby’s detractors, on the other hand, picked on her for her overly simple hairstyle, while some claimed that NBC had somehow influenced the scoring of Komova’s brilliant floor exercise. These folks failed to notice that Gabby’s score seemed a little low, too.

Life will never be quite the same for Gabby. She will become ubiquitous. Her beaming visage will pop up on billboards, boxes and digital devices. The checks will come rolling in. The world will scrutinize her every move. Her story will be written and rewritten a hundred times, with each version differing depending on the author and agenda. The Walkers and Excalibur Gymnastics will no doubt have a lot to say about their role in Gabby’s triumph. Or at least their lawyers will.


Gabby Douglas, 2012 Oakland Tribune
     
 

Gabby’s family life—and her family members—will be exposed to public view in ways that no normal person can imagine or prepare for. She will make a lot of money, and others will attempt to monetize her fame for themselves. All of this will either make it harder or easier to focus on the 2016 Olympics, where expectations will be through the roof for Gabby. Until then, it should be a very interesting four years.

GABBY THE GYMNAST

Gabby’s favorite events are the beam and floor exercises, but her skill on the uneven bars and the vault make her especially exciting to watch. Heading into the Olympics, she was the hottest bar-worker in the U.S. She is so quick and so light, and gets incredible height on her dismount—hence her Flying Squirrel nickname.

The fact that Gabby loves the balance beam so much—and has so much trouble with it—suggests that this is the area where she will improve the most as she moves through her teens. There is little to improve in her floor exercise skills.


Gabby Douglas, 2012 People
     

 

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