Olympic Outlook: In Gymnastics, Meet America’s Flying Squirrel

U.S. gymnasts have a tough road ahead to make the Olympic squad. But that doesn't deter Gabby Douglas, who left her family and home for a chance to compete in London

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Gymnastics has Nadia, Mary Lou, Nastia. And now…the Flying Squirrel?

That would be Gabrielle Douglas, 16, the sprite-like gymnast who could give the US women a chance to win its first Olympic team gold since the Magnificent Seven (Amanda Borden, Amy Chow, Dominique Dawes, Jaycie Phelps, Shannon Miller, Dominique Moceanu and Kerri Strug) earned the honor in 1996.

The Olympic gymnastic season launched at Madison Square Garden on March 3 with the AT&T American Cup, the first in a series of international competitions leading up to the Games in London. And all eyes were on Douglas, who tallied up the highest score of the day among the eight-woman field.

(PHOTOSGabrielle Douglas’s Rise to Olympic Triumph)

Except that she didn’t win the competition. As an alternate for the US team, Douglas, and US gymnast Chris Brooks on the men’s side, were allowed to perform their routines as if they were competing, but their scores didn’t count. And wouldn’t you know it, Douglas soared to the top, besting teammate and current World champion Jordyn Wieber, who won the meet.

“That kind of hurts me,” Douglas said of being a virtual winner. “But it gives me an extra boost. If I want to be in, then I have to be consistent, do the same thing, and I’ll be good.”

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Being “in,” of course, means joining the elite and exclusive group of women who get to represent the USA at the Olympics in July. The US women have had a perfect record of going from the top of the podium at the American Cup to the gold medal stand at the Games; all three of the American Olympic all-around champions — Mary Lou Retton in 1984, Carly Patterson in 2004, and Nastia Liukin in 2008 — started their journey to the Games with a win at the American Cup.

Nobody is hoping that tradition continues more than Douglas, even without a real win. Like many athletes with Olympic aspirations, Douglas sacrificed the comforts of home and family in order to train with Liang Qiao (better known as Chow), who mentored Shawn Johnson to national and world titles and an Olympic silver in the team competition. After watching the way Johnson and Chow interacted at the Beijing Games in 2008, Douglas made up her mind that he was the only coach she needed.

“I wanted to make my Olympic dreams a reality, so I told my mom, I need a better coach, and I need a better coach now,” says Douglas. “I saw Shawn at the Olympics and I was like, ‘Wow, he’s so happy and he has such faith in you.’ I wanted to be there.”

The only problem — Chow lives in West Des Moines, Iowa, and Douglas trained in Virginia Beach. “In 2010, she said she wanted to make the Olympic team, and that she needed a new coach,” says Douglas’ mother, Natalie. “I was totally against it. My sole reason for holding out was that I knew we weren’t going to move our family to Iowa. I’ve visited Iowa once, and don’t know anybody there. But Gabby fought for it, and I guess I knew she had to change coaches.”

Chow helped the Douglases find a host family, the Partons, willing to take in the determined 14-year old, and, says Natalie, “I couldn’t have done better if I had found them myself. They’re a phenomenal family and give her what she needs.”

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For Douglas, that includes the chance to play big sister. At home in Virginia, she is the youngest of four. But at the Parton home, she rules the roost. “They have four younger girls, and I’m the oldest in the family,” she says with clear delight. “I try to set an example for them; I love helping them with dance, school or the gym.” One of her host siblings is also a gymnast at Chow’s and Douglas is more than happy to pass along tips from her then decade in the sport. “I love helping her do her kips or her squat-ons; I just love being the older sibling, and I think the challenge for me is great.”

She was also enjoying having a father figure; Douglas’ father, Timothy, is in the military and served in Afghanistan for much of the time she was in Iowa. “I talked to him every chance I got, on Skype or email, or he would call me,” she says. He came home for good last summer, and Douglas is hoping he will be able to witness her journey to the Olympics firsthand.

But before she can earn that berth, she has to earn the confidence of Martha Karolyi, the US women’s National Team Coordinator and the de facto gatekeeper for the women’s Olympic team. So far, Karolyi likes what she sees. Douglas’ combination of airy but powerful releases off the uneven bars impressed Karolyi enough to give her the Flying Squirrel moniker. “I was watching her very, very closely,” she says of Douglas’ routines at the American Cup. “I knew she was very well prepared; I was looking to see if mentally she will be strong. She is improving month to month, and I think she is really peaking for the Olympics, which is exactly how it has to happen.”

Douglas already has several things in her favor: she’s competed at the international level, and was part of last year’s gold-medal winning US women’s team at the world championships. Her routines also pack in the points — a critical factor under the current, no-perfect-10s judging system. Instead of evaluating routines from a perfect score and deducting for minor problems, judges now start by summing up the points assigned to each element a gymnast performs. Douglas’ start values for her routines at the American Cup either exceeded or equaled those of world champion Wieber. And she’s not done yet. She’s planning on adding more difficulty to her uneven bars program by the time she competes at the Olympic Trials.

“My biggest challenge now I would say is time,” says Chow of all the techniques he would like to incorporate and perfect in Douglas’ program. “We have to decide pretty soon which skills to use, and I don’t have much time to put all the things in the right position before the Olympics in July.”

Douglas faces some tough tests before the ultimate pressure cooker, the Olympic Trials, are held in San Jose. With new rules in place for the Olympics, the three-person selection committee will name just five, rather than six members of the US women’s gymnastics team at the end of that competition. Until then, however, Douglas and the rest of the Olympic hopefuls will have to prove themselves in at least three addition events, not to mention perform for Karolyi at the monthly training camps at the new National Training Center, located at Karolyi’s ranch in Texas. Which should be no problem for the Flying Squirrel. “At first, I was like, ‘the Flying Squirrel?’ Why can’t it be like Superwoman, or something like that? But I take it in,” says Douglas. “I like the name ‘Flying Squirrel.’”

Alice Park is a writer at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @aliceparkny . You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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