The USA’s Flying Squirrel
Gabrielle Douglas achieved international stardom at London 2012, when she became the US gymnast to secure both all-around titles at the same Games. Four years later in Rio, still just 20, she formed part of the American team that successfully defended their title, giving her a third Olympic gold. Nicknamed The Flying Squirrel on account of her acrobatic command of the uneven bars, the Team USA athlete wrote herself into the history books at London 2012, getting the better of Russia's Viktoria Komova in an electrifying neck-and-neck battle to become the first ever African-American woman to be crowned Olympic individual all-around champion. Having also won team all-around gold a few days earlier, Douglas was also the first American gymnast to complete the all-around double at the same Olympics.
The making of a gymnastics star
Born in 1995 in Virginia, Douglas took up gymnastics at the age of six, having perfected her first cartwheel with the encouragement of her older sister when she was only three years old. Taking her inspiration from US gymnast Carly Patterson, who won a gold and two silvers at Athens 2004, Douglas turned in her first title-winning performance at the 2004 Virginia State Championships, before getting herself noticed at the 2010 Covergirl Classic in Chicago, an elite junior event, where she came third on the balance beam, sixth on the vault and ninth in the all-around. Later that year she took silver at the US National Championships.
A tough decision
The young gymnast’s first taste of gold came at the 2010 Pan American Championships, where she won the uneven bars title and helped the USA secure the team crown. Tipped for glory, Douglas soon outgrew her Virginia Beach club team and made the difficult decision to move away from her family and relocate to Iowa. Enlisting the services of Chow Liang, who coached former world champion Shawn Johnson to four medals in Beijing and who had worked with Douglas before at her gym, the rising young star was soon to get the break that would make her a household name.
Double gold in London
After joining with her USA teammates, nicknamed “The Fierce Five”, to win team all-round gold at London 2012, Douglas was then gave herself the opportunity to go for individual all-around glory, qualifying ahead of her world champion compatriot Jordyn Wieber for the final. Rising to the occasion, and spearheading the USA’s medal hopes after team captain Aly Raisman wobbled on the beam, Douglas did battle with Komova and fellow Russian Aliya Mustafina. Rocketing into an early lead on the vault thanks to a near perfect Amanar that secured her 15.966 points, the American followed up with strong performances on the vault and the bars, before sealing gold with stunning displays on the uneven bars and the floor exercise. It was the United States’s third straight Olympic individual all-around title, equalling the record established by the Soviet Union between 1952 and 1960.
A national hero
Douglas attracted attention for celebrating the most prized honour in gymnastics by eating breakfast at McDonald’s the next day. The new Olympic champion, whose face went on to grace cereal boxes back home and the cover of Time magazine, later told The Boston Globe: “My mom told me: ‘You can inspire a nation’.” As a mark of her huge popularity, the star gymnast got her own Barbie doll in 2014, while a film entitled The Gabby Douglas Story was made of her life. She has also written two books: Grace, Gold, and Glory: My Leap of Faith, which came out at the end of 2012, and Raising the Bar, published the following year.
A Team USA mainstay
Following her London triumphs, Douglas gave serious thought to retiring, explaining that she wanted to be just another ordinary teenager. Later choosing to put those thoughts to the back of her mind, she continued to play a leading role in the US team, helping her country win team all-around gold at the 2015 FIG World Championships in Glasgow and taking silver behind Simone Biles, the new rising star of American gymnastics, in the individual event.
A third career gold in Rio
In earning selection for Rio 2016 at the USA Olympic trials, Douglas became the first individual all-around title holder to return to defend it since the great Romanian Nadia Comaneci in 1980. Along with Raisman, she was also the only member of the United States team in Rio to have featured in the London 2012 triumph. With Biles, Laurie Hernandez and Madison Kocian also for company in the team final, Douglas turned in a solid performance on the uneven bars to help the Americans retain their title by a distance from Russia and China. In the process, she collected the third gold of her Olympic career, though she would later miss out on a chance for a fourth in the individual final, with Biles and Raisman securing the USA’s two places before going on to take gold and silver respectively.
The final five
After winning the title, Douglas and her team-mates huddled together and cheered, “We are the Final Five!”, and not without good reason: as of Tokyo 2020 gymnastics teams will feature only four members. “I’m so thrilled with what our team achieved today and I’m delighted to be going home with another medal for our country,” she said. Followed by over a million people on Facebook and Twitter, Douglas will always be in the hearts of all gymnastics fans.