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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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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.