Gabby Douglas: from high 'maintenance' gymnast to Olympic champion

A year ago, Gabby Douglas wasn't seen as a potential Olympic all-around gymnastics champion. But the London Games have confirmed her meteoric rise into gymnastics' elite.

Julie Jacobson/AP
Gabby Douglas waves to the audience after her final and deciding performance on the floor, followed by coach Liang Chow during the artistic gymnastics women's individual all-around competition at the 2012 Summer Olympics Thursday in London.

When Gabrielle Douglas won gold in the women's all-around gymnastics final Thursday night, she made it look easy, because that is what Olympic champions are meant to do. 

The only surprising part, perhaps, was that it was Gabrielle Douglas. 

With a score of 62.232, Ms. Douglas topped Russia Victoria Komova by 0.259 points. Russian Aliya Mustafina and American Alexandra Raisman both finished behind with identical scores of 59.566, but the tiebreaker favored Ms. Mustafina for bronze.

So stunning has been Douglas's improvement during recent months, that her victory was no shock. In some quarters, she had been seen as the favorite. From the focal distance of a year ago, however, her Olympic all-around title is nothing short of astounding. 

Asked if he could have imagined this two years ago when he became Douglas's coach, Liang Chow answered, "no."

Martha Karolyi, the team coordinator and wife of legendary coach Bela, who has seen a few gymnasts in her time, added: "I have never seen a gymnast climb from an average gymnast to the best in the world in five months."  

Focus was a question mark

Average, she conceded, is a relative term. Douglas has always been "very talented." The talent isn't what needed improving. The focus that made Thursday night possible? That's been two years in the making. 

It took shape Thursday in a performance relentless in its efficiency. The night evolved into a duel between Douglas and Komova for gold. Douglas staked herself to a lead on the vault, and Komova pulled it back on the uneven bars. From there, it was a matter of who would hold their nerve on the beam and floor, and Douglas never flinched.

Before these Games began, Mr. Chow compared Douglas to his previous star pupil, Beijing all-around silver medalist Shawn Johnson. "Shawn is a more self-controlled individual," he answered. "Gabby ... still needs a lot of maintenance."

Translation: Well before Beijing began, Ms. Johnson had figured it out. She was a world champion. She had been tested. She knew that the only substitute for hard work was harder work. She had bought in and did not need a baby-sitter.

And Douglas?

"I will be very excited to see what's going to be happening in the next two weeks or so," he said.

Translation: This is Gabby's test, and we won't know if she's a true champion until after she's taken it. 

Chow, it seems, was along for the ride just like us this week. 

'Hard work really does pay off'

There were inklings, though, and each stronger than the one before. First, she beat all-around favorite Jordyn Wieber in US trials. Then she posted a higher score than Ms. Wieber again in the Olympic qualifying round here. And two nights ago, she was the anchor of the gold-winning US team – the only American to perform in all four rotations.    

After the all-around Thursday, Douglas sounded like an infomercial. Again and again she repeated the words "hard work really does pay off" in the astonished tones of someone who had just bought a Ginsu knife and was shocked to learn that it really can cut tomatoes wafer-thin. 

"He said, 'Push it in training, and the Olympics are going to be very easy,'" Douglas said of Chow.

And they were. 

In the end, she had bought what Chow was selling, and here, on the biggest stage of all, she had discovered that it actually worked. Chow "is very patient, he has a very calm manner in how he handles the gymnasts," said Karolyi. "That's exactly what Gabby needed."

Eventually, it allowed that raw talent to come through.

"I took that in: Do what you do in training," said Douglas. "It used to be that I doubted myself – 'What if I fall?' But it's definitely easier this way."  

That ease is the element of her gymnastics that did not need to be built, but unlocked.

"She is very flexible and coordinated," said Chow before the Olympics. "That's why she has made such improvements in a short amount of time."

And it made her gymnastics extraordinary Thursday. "She performs with extreme lightness," said Karolyi. "She was not barreling through the routines, she was flying through the air."

After all, her newfound focus meant she was not weighted down by an undisciplined mind. Chow said he refused to allow her to look at the scoreboard in between rotations. 

But a smile spread across her face. "I did check," she confessed. 


After the vault ... and the bars, and the beam, and the floor.

"I thought she was such a good listener," Chow laughed.

Even now, it seems, his new star pupil needs a little bit of maintenance.  

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