U.S. Olympic hopeful Gabrielle Douglas competes on the uneven bars at the… (Jeff Roberson / Associated…)
When Gabrielle Douglas teetered, then wobbled, then fell off the balance beam at the USA gymnastics national championships in St. Louis this month, it would have been natural for any 16-year-old to fight back tears or make other big mistakes as she continued the competition.
But here's what Douglas did:
She almost won.
Without the full one-point deduction for the fall, Douglas would have beaten defending world champion Jordyn Wieber and won her first national all-around title.
As it is, she and Wieber will come into the U.S. Olympic trials June 28-July 1 in San Jose as Olympic all-around gold medal favorites just as Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin did four years ago. Liukin ended up winning the Olympic all-around gold and Johnson took the silver.
Wieber won the national title, scoring 121.900 to Douglas' 121.700, but it is Douglas who is the unlikely gymnastics star.
If she makes the U.S. Olympic women's gymnastics team, she will be the first African American since Dominique Dawes in 2000 and is aiming to be only the second African American woman to win an individual medal. Dawes won a floor exercise bronze in 1996.
U.S. women's national team coordinator Martha Karolyi has given Douglas the nickname "Flying Squirrel," for her height-defying release moves on the uneven bars. Her coach, Liang Chow, says it is "astounding" how much Douglas has improved the last few months.
Douglas, noted for her bright smile and fast talking, has made difficult career choices already.
Almost two years ago, when she was barely 14 years old, Douglas left her home in Virginia Beach, Va., her mom, Natalie Hawkins, and her four older brothers and sisters and moved to West Des Moines, Iowa, to train with renowned coach Chow. The Chinese native had molded Johnson into a world champion and Olympic gold medalist. Douglas was to live with a host family headed by Travis and Missy Parton.
Hawkins said the moment when Douglas moved west was the hardest of her life.
"I almost went into a depression," said Hawkins. "Letting her go wasn't easy."
Hawkins, who said she is at the end of divorce proceedings with Douglas' father, Timothy Douglas, said Travis Parton was "an awesome father figure" for Gabrielle and the whole family made her daughter one of their own.
The stubborn Douglas said she acquired lots of colds in Iowa at first — "I just refused to wear a jacket because I wouldn't admit it gets cold in Iowa in the winter" — but also acquired confidence in her gymnastics.
Johnson, who retired from the sport a few weeks ago after deciding a knee injury would not hold up to intense Olympic training, called Douglas "a ball of raw talent," when she first met her two years ago.
"She was all over the place mentally and physically but she was also a machine," Johnson said.
Douglas calls herself, during the course of three conversations, "crazy," "hyper," and "focused," and all three descriptions seem apt.
When Douglas fell off the balance beam, it was a mistake that seemed born of speed and missing concentration, something Douglas said afterward.
"I don't know where my head was," she said, "just getting ahead of myself, all the fans, all the noise. I had expectations, you know?"
But the little girl who resolutely packed up and left home collected herself and corralled the rest of her skills.
Missy Parton said she could never do what Hawkins let Douglas do.
"That's something I completely admire in Natalie," Missy Parton said. "But Natalie and I had a lot of phone conversations before Gabby came. We just connected, you know? We had a lot of the same beliefs, we agreed about raising our kids and that we'd call Natalie if anything was ever going on."
The Partons, who have a daughter taking gymnastics at Chow's gym, said a few months before Douglas came to live with them, they had told Chow if he ever needed a temporary home for a faraway gymnast, theirs would be open.
"And now," Missy Parton said, "I can't imagine life without her. It would be impossible. I would have been unable to write a script like this, but this is how our life goes now and we love her."
Hawkins, who is on leave from her job in the recovery department of HSBC, an international banking company, said that before Douglas began receiving national team financial aid, "I'd always pull an extra shift at work.
"We'd get bonuses and that would go into savings. I was always at the savings rack, spending frugally."
Parton said her family was able to easily take Douglas into their four-bedroom, two-bathroom home. "She doesn't eat much," Parton joked. Travis runs his own home maintenance company and the family also runs a fitness gym, Parton said.
After finishing second to Wieber, Douglas ran to Hawkins first, then Missy Parton immediately after. Big hugs all around.
"I named her Gabrielle Christina Victoria Douglas," Hawkins said. "Her name means, 'God's able-bodied one.' As you can see, she has lived up to her name."