It’s hard to go from first to last, but even when you’re an Olympic champion, it happens.
After riding a golden high that propelled her to two Olympic gold medals, one in the women’s gymnastics team event and another in the individual all-around competition, Gabrielle Douglas Monday fell to last in the finals for the uneven bars. She finished eighth in a field of eight, with the lowest score she’s received on that apparatus during the entire Games.
Clearly waning after pushing through three complete rounds of competition since last Sunday, Douglas didn’t have the strength to reverse direction on the bars and stalled on a handstand. She tried to cover up with a pirouette but the judges, and the crowd, knew something was wrong. “I’m a little disappointed in myself; I could have fought harder on that and pulled a little harder,” she says. “Toward the end of the Olympics, you get mentally and physically tired, and you just get drained. I tried to fight through as much as I could.”
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Although bars is her strongest event, Douglas wasn’t a favorite for a medal since the field featured the highest scoring female gymnast of the entire women’s competition in London – a 16.1 from Russia’s Aliya Mustafina, as well as the defending Olympic champion, He Kexin of China, Mustafina’s teammate Victoria Komova, who is the world champion on bars, and Britain’s Elizabeth Tweddle, whose routine was one of two with the highest difficulty level.
Douglas’ routine had the lowest start value, at 6.3, meaning it wasn’t as intricate or as challenging as those of the other gymnasts. And while she makes up points with the height she achieves on her release moves, even she acknowledged that it would have been hard to get on the podium. “I wasn’t doubting myself going into bar finals, but even if I hit a good, solid routine, it still wasn’t enough to medal because Beth Tweddle and Mustafina and the Chinese girls all have these big scores,” she says. “Going in, I have this average kind of low start value. It was definitely amazing talent; Beth Tweddle with her insane connections, Mustafina with her lines and preciseness.”
Mustafina’s trademark dismount, a tucked one and a half turns with a twist, ups her difficulty score, and when she nails the landing, as she did both during the all-around final and the event final, she easily breaks 16 points.
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At a start value of 7.0, however, it’s not the most challenging program. That belongs to China’s defending Olympic champion on the event, He Kexin, whose 7.1 helped her to silver. Mustafina’s clean lines and crisp execution on handstands and release moves earned her a 9.133 out of 10 from the judges for execution; He garnered 8.833.
Just 0.017 points behind He, Great Britain’s Tweddle won the country’s first individual medal in women’s gymnastics (they earned bronze in 1928 in the team event). A lightning fast bar worker, she dazzled the appreciative crowd with consecutive release moves that she ticked off with military precision, earning her an execution score higher than He’s. Competing at her third and final Games, Tweddle was happy to end her career on such a high. “Everyone knows I wanted this one medal to be able to finish my career happy,” she says. “This was the one thing what was missing.”
For the US team, the strain of putting their all into competing in two strenuous rounds of competition for the team final is beginning to show: on Sunday, McKayla Maroney, the world champion on vault, uncharacteristically had a fall on one of her two attempts and earned the lowest score of her season, a 14.3 that cost her the gold she was expected to win in London.
And in Douglas’s case, being in the spotlight as the first African-American to win the individual all-around, as well as the first US gymnast to win gold medals in both that event and the team competition, means her personal life will be exposed as well. TMZ reported that in January, her mother, Natalie Hawkins, who is divorcing her husband and has been raising her four children on her own, filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy with a debt of nearly $80,000. The bills include student loans, credit car and cell phone debts, which she is paying off in monthly installments. “My dad had left us, and he wasn’t really in the picture any more,” Douglas says of her father, Staff Sgt. Timothy Douglas who served in the Army in Iraq and Afghanistan. “My mom had to pay all these bills, and my dad didn’t really pay the child support, he cut it short. It was definitely hard on her part.”
For her part, Hawkins told reporters in London, “It’s my story, it’s part of me. I’m not even embarrassed about it…It shows that even though I didn’t like to have to do it, I’m glad there was something there for me to be able to protect my home.”
Hawkins applied for and received military scholarships to continue funding Douglas’ gymnastics training in Iowa, where she moved to work with Liang Chow, coach of Olympian Shawn Johnson. She has been living with a host family in West Des Moines since 2010.
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After her performance in London, her appeal to sponsors should help her family’s financial situation, but for now, it’s back to training for her final event — the finals in beam. “I am kind of disappointed I didn’t try harder on the bars routine, but it’s definitely motivation for beam,” she says.