Olympics 2012: New heights for Gabrielle Douglas

‘Flying Squirrel’ would rather miss home than Olympics

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Gabrielle Douglas wanted to go home.

In January, four days after the gymnast dubbed the “Flying Squirrel” celebrated her 16th birthday, training for the Olympics in West Des Moines, Iowa, became too much. Douglas yearned to return to her family in Virginia Beach, and the midnight showings of “Twilight” movies with sisters Arielle and Joy, dinners at Smokey Bones and exploring the boardwalk with her dogs, Zoway and Chandler.

Two years earlier, Douglas wrote a list of pros and one con — she would miss her family — as she hounded her mother, Natalie Hawkins, to send her to live with strangers and hone her uncanny gymnastics ability.

That ability helped Douglas compile the third-best Olympic qualifying round score Sunday in London behind second-place teammate Aly Raisman, in advance of Tuesday’s team finals and Thursday’s all-around competition.

Before the national magazine covers and prime-time television interviews, Ms. Hawkins wanted to bring her youngest daughter’s 4-feet-11 of smiles and energy back to Virginia. But the mother couldn’t.

“I know she would never be able to live with herself if she was sitting home on July 26 getting ready to watch the start of the games and her name wasn’t on it,” Ms. Hawkins said. “It was your decision to come, and you’re not a quitter.”

Douglas remained in Iowa and opened the path to the London Olympics that turned a pipe dream into a reality that feels like, at least to her mother, a mix of jubilation, anxiety, hope and nerves.

For Douglas, West Des Moines and London are hopelessly intertwined. In 2008, she first asked about switching coaches in search of more advanced training and eventually told her mother that she would quit the sport if she couldn’t make a change. Ms. Hawkins didn’t want to move her three other children to pursue Gabrielle’s sport. Ms. Hawkins didn’t know how to reconcile her daughter’s desire for a new coach and her family’s inability to move.

By late 2010, they compromised.

In October that year, Douglas relocated to West Des Moines to train with Liang Chow at Chow’s Gymnastics and Dance Institute. Chow coached Shawn Johnson, who won a gold medal and two silvers in the 2008 Beijing Olympics before retiring in June. When Mr. Chow taught Douglas a new vault at a clinic, she was hooked and, with the aid of her sisters, compiled the list of reasons to train with Mr. Chow.

“It suddenly clicked in my head that I needed to get a higher coach standard who could actually take me [to the Olympics],” Douglas said. “I decided that if he could teach me this, then what else could he teach me?”

Iowa’s fields, mile after mile of them, threw off Douglas when she arrived. Where was the water? Where was Virginia’s traffic?

Douglas moved in with a host family, Travis and Missy Parton, and their four daughters. At first, Douglas was hesitant to ask Mrs. Parton for a favor and instead would ask her mother to be a go-between. Now Mrs. Parton is like Douglas‘ second mother.

After departing from Iowa in January, Douglas compiled the highest all-around score (including besting reigning world champion Jordyn Wieber) in the AT&T American Cup at Madison Square Garden in New York City. The score wasn’t counted because Douglas was an alternate.

But the U.S. Olympic Trials in San Jose, Calif., counted, and Douglas beat Wieber again to claim the lone guaranteed London spot with her all-around performance. That included scoring 15.9 in the uneven bars, the event that earned her “Flying Squirrel” nickname. On Sunday, Douglas and Raisman beat out Wieber for spots in this week’s all-around final.

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