Gabby Douglas: Team USA’s Flip Artist

Gabby Douglas swapped families and changed coaches to make herself an Olympic contender

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Martin Schoeller for TIME

Start with a talented, headstrong, African-American gymnast from Virginia Beach. Let her watch the 2008 Olympic Games and become obsessed with the idea that a coach she sees on TV — who once competed for China but now trains Americans in Iowa — can make her a star. Move her in with a host family of Iowans to train with this coach. Throw in some teenage troubles (she is just 16, after all) and add a world championship and release moves that earn her a memorable moniker — the Flying Squirrel. If this Olympic story gets any sweeter, Disney will option the movie rights.

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The only thing missing is the gold medal, which would be a perfectly acceptable substitute for the princess’s crown in the fairy tale that is now Gabrielle Douglas’ life. The teen gymnast, currently living in West Des Moines, Iowa, has spent the past year and a half away from her close-knit family and become part of another one, all to secure her place on the U.S. squad. Along the way, she’s had to learn that Olympic dreams come with nightmares — in her case, a haunting self-doubt that gnaws away at the bravado built up from hours and hours of nailed routines in the gym.

Unquestionably talented, Douglas secured the only guaranteed spot on the women’s squad by winning the U.S. Olympic trials. But the trip to London wasn’t always a sure thing. She lacked consistency at meets, dazzling at one and letting her nerves get the best of her at the next. Doubt is any elite athlete’s worst enemy. It’s the mind overtaking the body, thoughts ruling actions, and the result, almost always, is a broken heart. To hear Douglas tell it, the anxiety always emerges with the same questions: Am I good enough? Can I compete with the best? In only her second year as a senior-level gymnast, Douglas is learning what it takes to harden those nerves into the anchored focus of an Olympian. She has learned that to be a competitor, -you can’t make friends on the floor. “No one is going to feel sorry for you, so you have to go out there and be fierce,” she says.

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Ever since she performed her first perfect cartwheel at age 3, this is what Douglas has wanted. She possesses the package that international judges reward: effortless flexibility combined with a competitive spirit that has made her the nation’s leading uneven-bars performer. “I like to give them the Flying Squirrel when I go out there and perform,” she says. And her energetic tumbling runs make her a crowd favorite on the floor exercise and vault. In London, she’ll be in contention for the coveted all-around title, which for the past two Games has gone to an American. But even more important than that potential three-peat, Douglas’ contributions could help the U.S. redeem its loss in the team-gold-medal race — missed in Beijing by 2.3 points to China — and win its first in 16 years.

What’s in Iowa?

It was Douglas’ sister Arielle who first recognized her tumbling talent and talked their mother, Natalie Hawkins, into signing her younger sibling up for gymnastics classes. By the time she was 14, Douglas had placed fourth at the junior national championships but was struggling with coaches who she felt weren’t pushing her enough to learn new skills. She convinced herself that all she needed to become an Olympian was the right mentor. In her mind, the coach was the magic ingredient that would transform her into one of the elite performers she admired from afar.

So as she watched the Beijing Games, her attention was naturally drawn not only to star gymnasts — Shawn! Nastia! — but to the always smiling man with the ready hugs who was coaching them: Liang Qiao.

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Chow, as he spells his name to make the phonetics easier for his American students, was the head coach  of the U.S. national women’s team and the personal coach of Shawn Johnson, who won silver in the all-around event in Beijing. “He was always smiling. He looked so happy, like he had such faith in Shawn,” says Douglas during a recent talk in the kitchen of the Iowa home where she lives. “I wanted to be there.”

Those smiles and hugs were beguiling enough for her to decide that Chow was the answer to her problems. A former Chinese national gymnast and world medalist, Chow had traveled to Des Moines at the suggestion of an aunt who was teaching at the University of Iowa, where he found a position coaching gymnastics. Realizing he needed younger charges to raise his coaching profile, he ended up opening his own gym in West Des Moines on what used to be a cornfield.

But Hawkins wouldn’t even consider a coach based in the Midwest for her daughter. “Iowa? I don’t know anyone in Iowa,” she says, joking, “Are there people  in Iowa? There’s just corn in Iowa.” Douglas was adamant, though, and Hawkins knew she was fighting a losing battle. She had lectured her daughter that part of learning to be an elite athlete was overcoming obstacles and living with imperfect and difficult situations, which for Douglas was the friction she had with her then coach. “One day Gabrielle came home and said, ‘If this was going on at your job, how well could you just deal with it?’” says Hawkins, a recovery specialist with HSBC. “It was at that moment that I came to contemplate letting her move away.”

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Douglas’ timing was perfect, since Chow happened to be hosting a clinic at her gym, where she got her first opportunity to experience what it would be like to call him coach. What Chow got to see was a young woman perfectly proportioned for gymnastics at 4 ft. 11 in. (150 cm), with strong shoulders and a lean, balletic line. She immediately picked up the Amanar vault that he taught her, one of the most difficult moves that she and her teammates in London will perform. And it only confirmed what Douglas had sensed from the first time she saw him on TV: Chow was the coach she needed.

What she hadn’t realized, however, was that the Olympic potion doesn’t miraculously produce confidence and perfect routines. It’s more of a blend of the best of what a coach can give, what an athlete can take and what both of them can give back. Chow was initially reluctant to take Douglas on. He recognized her talent but wasn’t keen to move such a young girl away from her family. But her eagerness for gymnastics and obvious thirst for a change finally won him over. “She was sacrificing being with her mom in order to be the best gymnast she can be, and that touched my heart,” he says.

He also knew of a potential solution to her housing dilemma, in the form of Missy and Travis Parton, parents of four young girls, one of whom is an avid -gymnast at Chow’s gym. As the Partons saw more and more out-of-towners flock to Chow’s Gymnastics and Dance Institute following the 2008 Games, they approached Chow with an unusual, open-ended offer: they were willing to host a gymnast with Olympic promise whose family couldn’t afford to move to West Des Moines. “Two months passed, and I started to think, Wow, that was such a silly idea. I don’t know what we were thinking,” says Travis. “Then Chow calls me out of the blue and asks if the offer still stands. I said, ‘Yeah. Do you have somebody?’”

Douglas had already gone to Iowa to work with Chow and was happy in the gym but not with her living situation, having jumped from family to family for several weeks. At Chow’s suggestion, Hawkins and Douglas spent a week with the Partons and immediately knew they had found the perfect host family. “If I didn’t know better, I would say Missy gave birth to her, and Travis was there,” says Hawkins. “They literally took her in as if she were their own daughter.”

Douglas got a fast promotion, from being the youngest sibling — with two older sisters, Arielle and Joyelle, and an older brother, John — to ruling the roost over the Partons’ four girls, ranging in age from 6 to 10. “It definitely challenges me to be the older sibling, and I try to set an example for them,” she says. “I love helping them with dance or school or at the gym.”

But being away from her family and serving as a role model to her new sisters pushed Douglas to mature a little faster than she was ready for at first. Just after leaving for Iowa, her father, who has been separated from Hawkins since 2007, was deployed for his third Reserve tour, in Afghanistan. “Whoa, that was hard,” she says of going home for that leave-taking. “I ran after the bus, crying.”

When she was at school in Iowa, homesickness would sweep over her at random times, and she would burst into tears. At the gym, things weren’t working out as smoothly as she had hoped either. Her first big competition under Chow’s tutelage, the Visa U.S. national championships, was a dud. She fell off the balance beam three times during her minute-and-a-half routine. “I had a lot going through my head mentally. I wasn’t really confident,” she says. Chow admits that she was still so new to him that he didn’t know how to coach her through her nerves.

News from home also threw her off-balance; changes big and small reminded her of how alone she was. She missed her ritual of catching the midnight showing of the newest Twilight movie with her sister. And while she trained, finally switching from regular school to online classes to accommodate her competition schedule, her parents proceeded with their divorce. Juggling her emotions, adjusting to a different family dynamic both in West Des Moines and in Virginia Beach and settling into her gymnastics routine finally proved too much. After moving to Iowa in February 2011, she had her only real teen freak-out that Christmas when she refused to practice and rebelled against the Partons’ rules. After conferring with Hawkins, the Partons played the ultimate parental card: they revoked Douglas’ cell-phone and computer privileges for a week.

The Flying Squirrel

She still gets homesick, but Douglas has learned to lean on both families when she needs them. She has regular Skype chats with her family in Virginia and spoke to her father, who is now home, the same way while he was in Afghanistan.

But she says her biggest challenge is still overcoming her fear — although Chow now plays a big part in pulling her out of the spiral of insecurity. “I tell her, If you perform your routine and follow my directions and you’re doing good, it’s your deal. And if you screw up, it’s my mistake, so don’t worry about it,” he says. Whenever the anxiety creeps in, she feeds off the hugs and smiles that drew her to him in the first place. “Chow says that when you put your arm up and you’re ready, it’s not a time to chicken out, but think of it as an opportunity to show everyone what you can do and what you’ve been training to do,” she says.

She can do plenty. In 2011, at her first world championships, Douglas contributed to the U.S. squad’s third team gold. Her effortless swings and breath-taking height on the uneven bars earned her the admiration of the national-team coordinator, Martha Karolyi, and the rarely bestowed honor of that nickname, the Flying Squirrel. “I was like, Why can’t it be Superwoman or something like that?” says Douglas. “But I like it.”

And she is finally ready to start acting like an Olympian. “I’m thinking, Wow, I’m one of the best [gymnasts] in the world,” she says. All she has to do is remind herself every day that she deserves that title.