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Following two tough days of competition at its Olympic trials in San Jose in July, USA Gymnastics announced the names of the five athletes who will defend the women’s team all-around title at Rio 2016 and compete in the individual events. Regarded as one of the USA’s most decorated and competitive women’s artistic gymnastics teams of all time, the roster includes reigning three-time world individual all-around champion Simone Biles, London 2012 team and individual gold medallists Gabby Douglas and Aly Raisman, and newcomers Laurie Hernandez and Madison Kocian.
Douglas was just 16 when she won her individual gold in the all-around and is the first holder of the title to return to defend it since the legendary Romanian Nadia Comaneci in 1980. Along with Raisman, she is also the first American gymnast to make consecutive appearances in the USA’s Olympic women’s gymnastics team since Amy Chow and Dominique Dawes did so at Atlanta 1996 and Sydney 2000.
Surprisingly, Douglas failed to shine at the national trials, finishing seventh in the all-around, sixth on vault, 11th on beam, sixth on floor, and third on uneven bars. Yet as USA’s women’s team coordinator Martha Karolyi explained, Douglas earned selection for Rio because of her proven ability to contribute to the team across several pieces of apparatus.
“I can improve a lot more,” said the double Olympic champion looking ahead to Rio 2016. “I’m going to go into the gym and work so hard. I’m willing to put everything into it.”
Lining up alongside Raisman, Jordan Wieber, Kyla Ross and McKayla Maroney in London, Douglas proved inspirational as the USA beat Russia, Romania and China to win only their second Olympic team all-around gold since 1928, the previous one having come at Atlanta 1996.
The only gymnast to compete on all four apparatus, she scored above 15.200 in all of them, including competition-best scores on vault and floor, and played a decisive role in her team’s victory.
Three days later, Douglas made the ideal start to the individual all-around competition, registering a near-perfect score of 15.966 on vault. She backed that up with a fine performance on the uneven bars, before excelling on beam and floor to rack up an overall total of 62.232, just enough to hold off Russia’s Viktoria Komova in the battle for the gold.
Douglas’ London exploits had a significance that went beyond the gymnastics arena. The first African American gymnast to win Olympic individual all-around gold, she was also the first US athlete to win both the team and individual all-around titles, and the only American all-around champion to win multiple titles at the same Games, achievements that made her a star back home.
As well as appearing on the front cover of Time magazine and a number of cereal boxes, she was named US Athlete of the Year for 2012 and has written two successful books. “My mom told me, you can inspire a nation,” she told The Boston Globe at the time.
Though Douglas has experienced her fair share of disappointments since London, she did help her country win team all-around gold at the 2015 FIG World Championships in Glasgow and took silver behind her compatriot Biles in the individual event.
“I feel like through my whole career I’ve had to fight for everything. I’m used to it by now, but at the same time it's like, ‘Let’s do it and let’s keep fighting’. That’s me,” reflects Douglas.