History-Making High: How U.S. Gymnast Gabrielle Douglas Became the Olympic All-Around Champion

Douglas makes history twice: she's the first African-American all-around Olympic champion and the first U.S. gymnast to win both that title and the team gold in the same Games

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Gregory Bull / AP

U.S. gymnast Gabrielle Douglas performs on the balance beam during the artistic-gymnastics portion of the women's individual all-around competition at the London 2012 Summer Olympics on Thursday, Aug. 2, 2012

When Gabrielle Douglas woke up Thursday morning, Aug. 2, she did what she has done every day since she arrived in London: she read a letter written by one of her family members. And since she’s been living with a host family in West Des Moines, Iowa, for the past year and a half, she has no shortage of those. Packed in her bag in separate envelopes are dated missives from her brother John, her sisters Arielle and Joy, her host mother Missy Parton, her host father Travis, host siblings and other host relatives. Today, however, was her mother’s turn. In her letter, Natalie Hawkins quoted scripture that says no one runs a race without the goal of winning. Run to win, Hawkins wrote her daughter. Compete to win.

(PHOTOSGabrielle Douglas’s Rise to Olympic Triumph)

Gabby Douglas

On the cover: Photograph by Martin Schoeller for TIME

Douglas, 16, did just that. In four events at the North Greenwich Arena, with all of the U.S.’s Olympic all-around champions — Mary Lou Retton, Carly Patterson and Nastia Liukin — as well as gymnastics greats Nadia Comaneci and Shawn Johnson in attendance, Douglas led from the start and never gave up the lead. Already a gold medalist with the U.S. women’s gymnastics team, Douglas earned the all-around title as well, becoming the first African American to do so and the first U.S. gymnast to claim both the team and all-around gold medals in a single Games.

“Wow,” she says, admitting she wasn’t aware of the second honor. “You learn something new every day.”

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Russia’s Victoria Komova finished second for the silver, and in a tense finale, Aliya Mustafina of Russia and Douglas’ teammate Aly Raisman finished in third with identical scores. The International Gymnastics Federation stepped in to break the tie with the sum of each gymnast’s top three scores; Mustafina, who posted the highest score of the night with a memorable uneven-bars routine, 16.1, edged Raisman for the bronze by 0.567 points.

“I just wish I could have been up on the podium as well, but I’m really happy for the three girls who are up there,” says Raisman.

Raisman was the surprise entrant in the all-around competition after the qualifying round, in which she earned the second highest score, behind Komova. Because only two gymnasts from each country can compete in the all-around event, her teammate Jordyn Wieber, the current world champion, who finished fourth overall but behind two of her teammates, watched the competition from the stands.

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Known for her consistency and steely focus, Raisman uncharacteristically had several wobbles on the beam, nearly falling off but maintaining her balance to earn a 14.333, the lowest score she received in performing on that apparatus in her three events in London. “I was last up, so I think I was just nervous,” she says. “I was trying to stay warm, but it’s hard when you’re waiting, so I felt like it was a really long time, and I just got a little bit nervous.”

Nerves have usually been Douglas’ problem. At her first national championships as a senior competitor, she fell off the beam three times during her 90-sec. routine. But it was a different Douglas who showed up in London — focused, confident and unflappable. “Many people worried about her mental toughness,” says her coach, Liang Chow. “But today she demonstrated that she can handle it, that she can handle the toughest job. It was a wonderful performance under huge pressure for a 16-year-old.”

(MORE: Gabby Douglas: Team USA’s Flip Artist)

What made the difference? “Definitely training,” says Douglas. “It’s tough for me to focus. I’m like, ‘Focus!’ and then it’s, ‘Oh, something shiny.’ It’s definitely hard because you want to see what everybody is doing. But if you want to stay on top, you have to learn to focus, so I trained my body so every time someone went, I turned my back and focused on my routines.”

The support from her two families helped as well. “I think what helped ground her was all of us coming together as a family unit,” says Hawkins. “We all told her the same thing — believe in yourself, and you have nothing to worry about. There is no place for fear.” Her brother John told her, “Put your body on the line. Don’t give up.” Her sister Arielle, who gets credit for spotting Douglas’ talent as a 3-year-old who could do perfectly straight cartwheels, told her to believe in herself and do what she does in practice. Her host mom Missy told her to do what she does every day in Iowa. Chow told her the same: “Connect with me and with the equipment, and don’t worry about the scores. Leave that to the judges,” he said.

And it worked. “Physically, yes, she was prepared. We all knew that,” says Martha Karolyi, the U.S. national team coordinator. “But lots of people had a question mark about her ability to focus, and really, this quality has improved in the last five months. She had such a great improvement, it’s incredible in such a short time. I haven’t seen any gymnast go from an average good gymnast five months ago to climb up to be the best in the world. That’s the truth.”

(MORE: U.S. Women Gymnasts Win First Team Gold Since 1996)

Chow admits that when Douglas first entered his gym, in October 2010, he could see her talent but wasn’t sure he wanted to take her on. It was 18 months to the London Games, and he was worried there wasn’t enough time to mold raw ability into an Olympic champion. But Douglas, who lives in Virginia Beach, Va., begged her mother to allow her to train with Chow and his wife Liwen Zhuang after watching him on television coaching Shawn Johnson at the Beijing Games. Chow was impressed by the fact that the determined 14-year-old was willing to move away from her close-knit family to train to be a world-class gymnast. He couldn’t turn her away.

And now he’s grateful he didn’t. After falling just short of the gold in the all-around in Beijing with Shawn Johnson, Chow told NBC that the gold “is a wonderful dream come true — to have an Olympic champion.”

Even Hawkins is still in shock over the transformation. “It’s just amazing, when I look at where she was when I brought her to him and where she is now,” says Hawkins. “I’m utterly amazed at what they have done in one and a half years. To see the great strides they have made together as coaches and athlete, it’s just mind-boggling.”

(MORE: Heartache at Gymnastics: U.S.’s Jordyn Wieber Misses Qualifying for All-Around Final)

Chow began by playing on Douglas’ strengths: her lean physique and natural grace, which he crafted into one of the more crowd-pleasing and difficult uneven-bars routines in the competition. Her gravity-defying releases off the bar prompted Karolyi to call her the Flying Squirrel, and in the all-around, she says, “the Flying Squirrel was flying extremely high.”

And that pesky beam that brought her down at her first national championship? She kept both her composure and her balance through a wobble on the 4-in.-wide apparatus and earned the highest score of the night in that event.

“What I admire is, she performed with extreme lightness, and that is one of the qualities that actually the international judges appreciated,” says Karolyi, who is notorious for her exacting demands on gymnasts. “She wasn’t struggling. She wasn’t just barely pulling through the skills. She was really flying in the air like her little name says.”

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“She did great,” says Comaneci of Douglas’ performance. “She is very athletic, but the great thing is, she also has artistry. She is a combination of both, which is great. I am happy she is representing the sport well.”

It wasn’t long ago that Douglas couldn’t have imagined receiving such a comment from a role model like Comaneci or that she would be earning praises from the likes of Johnson and Liukin. In fact, when she saw Johnson for the first time, at Chow’s gym, she thought, ‘Wow, that’s Shawn Johnson! I’ve only seen her on TV!’ and found herself staring, open-mouthed, during Johnson’s training sessions. It was the image of Chow hugging Shawn at the Olympics that drew her to him, and to Iowa, when she vowed, “I want to be there.” It took nearly two years of sacrifice, but she is finally there.

48 comments
Cameodayz
Cameodayz

@2dogs7...You must understand that caucasians were brainwashed by their ancestors into thinking they are superior at everything over other races so when other races excel at something particularly those of African decent, they can't handle it so the only thing they can do to make them feel better about themselves is lash out and say rediculous things about those who have excelled and won worldwide respect and praise which makes the attacker feel inferior.  This comment applies to the ones who are still narrow-minded because not all caucasians still think like backward hicks. 

dmcrane
dmcrane

Amazing young lady.  She's so graceful and poised and strong and awe-inspiring. Congratulations, Gabby.

2012American_forever
2012American_forever

I admire what the young Douglas has achieved.  Excellent achievement for such a short time frame.  But why TIME did not relate her performance to taking dope like what they did to Ye Shiwen, the double gold Medalist from the swimming team of China who has passed the dope test?  By the way, I wanted to post this comment in the article about Doping allegations towards Ye, but the Comments page there was already closed.

2012American_forever
2012American_forever

I admire what the young Douglas has achieved.  Excellent achievement and improvement in such a short time frame.  But why TIME did not relate her performance to taking dope like what they did to Ye Shiwen, the double medalist from the swimming team of China who had passed the dope test?  By the way, I post my comment here because the Comments of the article about "Doping Allegations" towards Ye were already closed.

2012American_forever
2012American_forever

I admire what Douglas has achieved.  Excellent achievement in just a short time frame.  But why TIME is not relating her performance to taking dope like what they did to Ye Shiwen, the double medalist of the swimming team from China who had passed the dope test? By the way, I wanted to post this comment on your article about the "Doping Allegations towards Ye Shiwen" but the Comments for that article were closed already. 

2012American_forever
2012American_forever

I admire what Douglas has achieved.  Excellent.  She has improved tremendously in just a short time frame.  But why TIME is not relating her performance to taking dope like what they did to Ye Shiwen, the double gold medalist from China who had passed the dope test?  Where is the professionalism of TIME?  

proudofgabby
proudofgabby

I am in awe of her work ethic, talent, attitude and poise.  Her story inspires all of us to never give up.

J. Gail
J. Gail

Gabrielle is awesome. #blackgirlsrock

Austin Tashis
Austin Tashis

The thing that impressed me the most about Douglas was how gracefully she executed her moves. Even the Russian women, who are classically trained in ballet, looked awkward by comparison. Even when she made a misstep or righted herself after a difficult move, she made it look like a flourish rather than a recovery. You just don't see that kind of poise in someone so young.

Frank Bliss
Frank Bliss

One of the finest gymnastics performances I've seen. Congratulations.

CoffeeSmellr
CoffeeSmellr

We LOVE YOU, Gabby!!!  You make us proud to be from a Country of Dreams!!

sirak
sirak

she is baste gemnastec in the wareld gaberila u s a i m happe by this point

Edward Darden
Edward Darden

Yeah, that our little Sweetpea!! She's so pretty and smart. We just love her. XOXOXO

Cheryl Hill
Cheryl Hill

 As Mary J would say:

Hold your head high, Gabby Douglas cause you're pretty young

woman! Work what you got! Celebrate the things that everyone thought

wouldn't happen; but, God has put his hands on you and no one alive can

take it from you! Be yourself in the beauty of the beautiful woman

you're becoming! Don't worry about Haters; let them hate! They going to hate anyway

because they are not happy with themselves! Show yourself some love!

Hold your head high cause you're pretty woman! Concentrate on the

Beautiful Queen that you are becoming!http://youtu.be/AXAK9nVBI3M

2dogs7
2dogs7

I find it appalling and a disrespectful that so many people want to add hair style and especially  race into the equation. This is a very talented and exceptional young lady who won Olympic gold in her respective field. The fact that she is black has nothing in any way to do with it. This is the work of small minded and racist individuals trying to further divide our culture. Let us just come together and celebrate the accomplishments of this fine young athlete.  

lmjohnson01
lmjohnson01

As an African American, it is NOT racist to acknowledge her race! It is a FACT that she is the 1st black to accomplish what she did and is a proud moment in history! We are proud of her a an American AND that she represents out culture! No different than all my italian, irish and english friends constantly making comments about their culture amp; who they are in conversations...it's just acknowledging who you are and being proud of it! Not sure why people are so uncomfortable when blacks express their proudness when we have to constantly see amp; hear about everybody elses culture!

lizzylink
lizzylink

Amendment to pronouns: Bela Karolyi is an older gentleman, not a lady. 

Kristin McNamara
Kristin McNamara

And Martha Karolyi, whom they interviewed and quoted in this article, IS a lady. SHE was the only person in that marriage who is mentioned above.

Talendria
Talendria

I love the image of her suspended in midair.  Talk about a leap of faith!

quitasarah
quitasarah

Congrats to Gabby!  But what really got me steamed  is that Time posted this BEFORE it had aired anywhere in the US.  Spoilers much?  Shame on you, Time!

Colleen McGovern
Colleen McGovern

She looks like the mini version of Michelle Obama, hopefully that wont get them relected.

She did brilliant and total confidence in every apparatus.

quitasarah
quitasarah

You really had to bring politics into this?

mtngoatjoe
mtngoatjoe

What an amazing young woman! A true inspiration! She's made America proud!

Spider's Web
Spider's Web

Gabrielle Douglas is the New Darling of the Gymnasium @London2012. All Team USA should be so proud to have found this sporting prodigy. To be 16 amp; Double Olympic Champion already is simply breath-taking! She could dominate for several more Olympiads yet?! Stunning amp; simply a privilege to behold! Well Done to her amp; everyone involved in her training!! :-)

ULURU
ULURU

zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

omegafrontier
omegafrontier

Awesome.  Chinese American coach, African American student, only in America.

Sonya InTexas
Sonya InTexas

She and her family must be very proud. It's wonderful, as an athlete, to have 100% support to realize her dreams...

nick price
nick price

 

Congrats! Gymnast Gabby Douglas The First African American to Win the Gold Olympic Medal in the Women's All-Around 

zikoraca
zikoraca

America is so divided. In other countries, one ia a citizen, period. In America, your Americanness is often qualifies. As such you have African American, Hispanic American, Asian American etc. What a sorry people.

SheikhVoodo
SheikhVoodo

why can't you just say American ?

garotadagavea
garotadagavea

Funny. If instead of earning a gold medal, she had been in a 7-eleven robbery, NOBODY would forget her race. But, win the Olympics and her race does not matter anymore. Funny how that goes...

seaki ache'
seaki ache'

Let me get this right,....Gabby is an African American, and BEFORE her well earned fame, if ANY of you saw her on the street, she would be an AFRICAN AMERICAN,..(or worse depending on the bigot she encountered).  So now she has represented our country, made us all proud,...you want to strip her of her identity, and homogenize her, calling her simply "american". No hunty,....Gabby is black, african american, negro, whatever, and she  has made history, BECAUSE of her race, talent and circumstances. Why take that away from her. She is black, get used to it! If Gabby was robbing banks or at the nearby stripper club,..you would be more than happy to denounce her as "That african american woman". Your racism is so ingrained its sicking.

Sftrain
Sftrain

THANK YOU SEAKI ACHE!

Commentonitall
Commentonitall

Because she just made history.  We don't go around calling Martin Luther King Jr. just another activists.  Although once we get rid of labels we will get rid of racism.  I hope that is where your comment was coming from.

jterp1985
jterp1985

umm...the article says so too, because she is.

 "...Douglas earned the all-around title as well, becoming the first African-American to do so..."

it's an honor, not a slight.  she's the first.

happydayfortennis
happydayfortennis

Because she wasn't the first American to win the gold Olympic medal in the women's all-around. 

Byron D. Wratee
Byron D. Wratee

@Kathy Williams:  I would ask you to ponder whether you are equating being an American with whiteness.  The very term "African American" suggests that we are Americans.  When Germans, Polish, Irish, Italian, and even Jewish immigrants arrived in America, they quickly dropped their ancestry to join the exclusive club of whiteness.  In fact, for years, these non WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) Americans were considered another race.  I would argue that these "white" or "non-colored" Americans would claim their ancestry if it were not forgotten.  As African Americans, we didn't have the luxury of being white.  Some African American tried:  we have a long and complicated history of "passing."  Other immigrant group like Hispanic and Asian American also have a hard time passing.  Remember that the past is prologue.  America is a country of immigrants, people from different racial and cultural backgrounds.  And the beauty of America is that we don't ask people to leave their heritage at the Brooklyn Bridge.  Today, African Americans take pride in our history and our race.  Gabby is and American of African descent.  She is African American.  We don't run away from that fact.

happydayfortennis
happydayfortennis

@facebook-1281127815:disqus I really wasn't trying to make an issue of it, just answering his question. I didn't even realize it was remotely controversial until later. On a related note, my personal favorite for tennis, Serena Williams, won the gold medal this morning and by now very few articles or commentators even mention her race any more, so we're making some progress at least.

Kathy Williams
Kathy Williams

yes, she is black and her ancestors were from africa. However you dont hear a german american, or an italian american. it is either american or not. race has nothing to do with it.