While it was her mega-watt smile and boundless energy that won America's heart, it was Gabby Douglas' commanding skills and high-flying moves that took her all the way to the top of the sport of gymnastics. Douglas's drive to win was undeniable; at 15 years old, she moved away from her family for the opportunity to train with elite gymnastics coach Liang Chow. Douglas quickly rose up the ranks, collecting victories and top finishes, including medals at the 2012 U.S. National Championships, where her breathtaking aerial performance on the uneven bars earned her the nickname the "Flying Squirrel." Douglas' winning streak continued all the way to London, as a member of the 2012 U.S. Women's Olympic Gymnastics Team. In spite of stiff competition from more experienced gymnasts, Douglas dominated, as she performed the complicated sequences of leaps and somersaults on the balance beam, and the breathtaking height on the uneven bars that led her to win gold medals in both the individual and team all-around competitions. Douglas became the first African-American gymnast to ever win the individual all-around Olympic gold, and the first American to win both the all-around and team events at the same Olympics. While her impressive performance netted Douglas endorsement deals, media appearances, and magazine covers, it was still her historic win at the Olympic Games that turned her into a teen role model and true gymnastics icon.
Gabrielle Christina Victoria Douglas was born on Dec. 31, 1995 in Virginia Beach, VA to Timothy Douglas and Natalie Hawkins. Douglas developed a passion for gymnastics after her older sister, Arielle, a former gymnast and competitive cheerleader, taught her how to do a cartwheel. By age four, the younger Douglas was tumbling and flipping around the house, but it would take two more years before she started training at a local gym. Once her formal training began, Douglas quickly accumulated trophies and top finishes, and by the time she was 14, she had already placed fourth at the junior national championships. Shortly after turning 15, Douglas convinced her family that in order to advance her career, she needed to move to West Des Moines, IA to train under coach Liang Chow, the head coach of the U.S. national women's team and former personal coach of the 2008 Summer Olympics gold medalist Shawn Johnson. But it meant leaving her family behind, as they could not afford to relocate with her. Chow was initially hesitant to take Douglas on, as he was reluctant to move her away from her family at such a young age. But her eagerness and drive won him over, and he relented; he even found Douglas a host family, the Partons, parents of four young girls, one of whom also trained at Chow's gym. Being away from home forced Douglas to mature faster, and to learn how to overcome her homesickness. She also needed to build her confidence and become used to a new, stricter training regimen and competition schedule. Douglas' efforts began to pay off and in 2011, at the World Championships in Tokyo, she helped her squad win gold. The following year, she continued her winning streak at the U.S. National Championships, taking the gold medal in uneven bars, silver in all-around, and bronze in floor exercises. Douglas' breathtaking swings and height on the uneven bars caught the attention of the national team coordinator for USA Gymnastics, Martha Karolyi, who nicknamed her "the Flying Squirrel."
In 2012, Douglas became one of the most talked about athletes at the Summer Olympic Games in London after she took home a team gold medal, along with teammates Kyla Ross, McKayla Maroney, Aly Raisman and Jordyn Wieber, whom the media collectively dubbed the "Fierce Five." Douglas, whose beaming smile and rocket-fueled performances mesmerized audiences, also leapt onto the pages of the history books by becoming the first African-American to win a gold medal in the all-around competition. Her historic Olympic performance turned Douglas into America's newest golden girl, with lucrative endorsement deals from major brands and appearances on talk shows like "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" (NBC, 1992- ), in an segment where First Lady Michelle Obama, a proponent of healthy eating habits among the youth, jokingly scolded Douglas for indulging in an Egg McMuffin after her Olympic win. Douglas, however, was not immune to controversy. In an interview with talk show host Oprah Winfrey, she revealed that she was reportedly the victim of bullying and racist jokes at a gym in Virginia Beach, almost causing her to quit the sport. The CEO of Excalibur Gymnastics denied those claims. Douglas shared her story and rose to the top of the gymnast world in her autobiography, Grace, Gold, and Glory: My Leap of Faith (2012), which debuted at No. 4 on the New York Times young adult bestseller list. She also dabbled in acting, with a guest appearance on her favorite show, the supernatural drama "The Vampire Diaries" (The CW, 2009- ), as a young girl helping Caroline (Candice Accola) plan a teen pageant.
By Candy Cuenco