Champion Gabby Douglas flies to place never held by U.S. gymnast - East Valley Tribune: Sports

Champion Gabby Douglas flies to place never held by U.S. gymnast

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Posted: Thursday, August 2, 2012 8:51 pm | Updated: 10:29 pm, Thu Aug 2, 2012.

LONDON - She is standing on the medal stand and she is holding a bouquet of pink roses and she is smiling that impossibly great smile.

"Oh, yeah, did you see that smile?" said Bela Karolyi.

We saw, Bela. The whole world saw.

The whole world saw Gabby Douglas skip and leap and twist to the top of the medal stand. The whole world saw her with the shimmering gold medal around her neck. The whole world saw something it had never seen before Thursday -- an African-American win the all-around title in women's gymnastics.

"Oh, yeah," said Douglas. "I forgot about that."

Which was the perfect answer, of course. She forgot about that. She forgot about the stuff that seems to consume everyone else in the world. She forgot about everything but the joy.

"I think the Flying Squirrel flew extremely high today," said Martha Karolyi, the U.S. team coordinator, using the nickname she had bestowed on Douglas after seeing her aerial show. "My little Flying Squirrel flew extremely high."

She flew to a place never occupied by a gymnast from this country. Douglas is the first American to own gold medals for both the team competition and the all-around.

Naturally, Douglas didn't know that either.

"Really?" she said. "You learn something every day."

It suits her, the wide-eyed naivete. She is 16, after all.

"I guarantee she's going to be a huge star now," said Bela. "Of course, there's going to be a crazy boom."

He meant, a boom in African-Americans in gymnastics. A door had been opened, with some leaps and a smile.

Can you imagine what Thursday meant to little girls of color? Someone who looked like them stood on the medal stand.

This is part of the power of the Olympics. The symbolism matters. It always has. It mattered when Jesse Owens won gold medals in Hitler's Germany. It mattered when women from Saudi Arabia walked in the Opening Ceremony.

It mattered Thursday, when Kayla Harrison won the first gold medal by an American in judo, proving that a victim doesn't have to be defined by years of sexual abuse.

And it mattered at the North Greenwich Arena, where Douglas accomplished something her coach never imagined two years ago.

That was when Douglas chose to leave her family and move to Iowa, and surely you've heard the story by now. Douglas was watching gymnastics on TV at home in Virginia Beach, Va., when she noticed Liang Chow, a coach who could get more out of her. Only catch: He lived in Iowa. At the age of 14, Douglas left her family and moved.

So this story is about conviction, as much or more than anything else, about believing in your potential and yourself. It's about the love of a mother in Virginia Beach, who let her little girl go away, and the love of a family in Des Moines, who took the little girl in.

It's a story about growth, the kind that is only possible when you really believe it is possible. As recently as a year ago, all the gymnastics experts will tell you that Douglas had no shot. She was too flighty, too distracted, too apt to fall off a beam. Indeed, she fell off the balance beam three times at the national championships a year ago.

"An average-good gymnast," said Martha Karolyi. "She was good, but others were above that level."

And then, who knows how these things happen? Who knows how a person grows into themselves?

Douglas won the all-around title at the Olympic Trials in July. Then she had the highest scores as the U.S. won the team gold. Then, Thursday, she went out and lived her dreams.

She led after the vault and the uneven bars. But, then, everyone expected that. The beam was the test. The beam had stopped her before. So, naturally, Douglas nailed that, too.

"It was incredible," said Martha Karolyi. "She really was flying in the air like her little name says."

The only suspense came after Douglas had finished, when Russian Victoria Komova could have moved into first with a 15.360 on floor exercise. Both gymnasts stared up at the scoreboard, wordless, leaning into their coaches. When a 15.100 went up for Komova, it was done.

Douglas waved and smiled and blew kisses to the crowd. And maybe it shouldn't matter that her skin is brown instead of white. But it was telling, afterward, to hear Douglas talk about Dominique Dawes, the only other African-American woman with a gymnastics medal.

"She was definitely my role model," she said. "She made me want to be a her."

She laughed at that one. A her, she surely is.

"I want to inspire people," said America's new princess, unaware that she already has.

Geoff Calkins, sports columnist for The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tenn., is part of the Scripps team covering the London Olympics. Contact him at calkins@commercialappeal.com.

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