Her smile won’t mean anything if she can’t back it up at the Olympics in London with some spectacular gymnastics. But the smile has helped her win the hearts of gymnastics fans. She’s on the verge of becoming America’s next Olympic sweetheart/rock star.
Every female gymnast from age 2 to 80 packed the HP Pavilion beyond capacity Sunday evening for the final night of the U.S. women’s trials.
It was a crazy-loud crowd. I was in the house in Beijing in 2008 when the Chinese women won the team gold medal in front of their adoring countrymen, and that crowd had nothing on the folks in San Jose.
Saturday’s crowd for the men’s Trials was loud and enthusiastic. Sunday’s crowd was twice as big, and three times as amped. They adored and worshiped their girls, especially the one with the smile that won’t stop, the one nicknamed the Flying Squirrel.
Warning: This is going to be one of those feel-good stories. Douglas’ dad, whom she hadn’t seen in 20 months due to his service obligations, showed up Friday night and called out to his daughter during warm-ups.
“I’m like, ‘Who’s calling my name?’ ” Douglas said Friday, “and then I look up and it was my dad and his friend. … I almost felt like bawling. I was like, ‘Oh, my God, Dad!’ ”
Dad is Air Force (Reserves) Staff Sgt. Timothy Douglas and, compared to his smile, Gabby’s is a work in progress. The 20-month (physical) absence of Sgt. Tim from his daughter included a six-month tour of duty in Afghanistan as a member of the 203rd Red Horse Civil Engineering Squadron.
Sunday, as he was watching his daughter from a front-row seat, and the Sarge couldn’t stop smiling.
“There was one work day in Kandahar,” he told me, “it was so hot, we had a break, I punched up YouTube and found Gabby in a meet. All the guys in the shop were gathered around, ‘That’s your daughter?’ ”
Gabby’s mom (Natalie Hawkins) and dad are in the process of divorce. Dad said that even though he hadn’t seen his daughter in 20 months, he’s been in constant contact with her – e-mails, letters, phone calls, texts.
Sunday he wore a baseball cap with “Go, Gabby. Love, dad” on the crown in multicolored letters. He waved a big American flag with good wishes written with marker on the stripes.
“She’s a visionary, a dreamer,” Dad said of his little girl. He recalled taking her to and from practices as a kid, in Virginia.
“I would still let her be a child,” he said. “I supported her dreams, myself and her mom and her brother and sister.”
Gabby was raised in Virginia but two years ago she persuaded her parents to let her move to Des Moines, Iowa, and train with noted Chinese American coach Liang Chow and live with a surrogate family. Douglas will be the second African American to compete for the U.S. women’s gymnastics team (Dominique Dawes in 1996 and 2000).
Douglas is emerging as a star at a perfect time, as a new crop of U.S. female gymnasts is taking over. The U.S. women won a team silver medal in Beijing, but none of those women made this team, including all-around gold medalist Nastia Luikin, who fell Friday and again Sunday from the uneven bars, erasing her dying hope of making this team
It’s a new deal, and the tiny (5-0, 94 pounds) Douglas is leading the way.
Her mom recently recalled how Gabby’s first coach tried to get her to stop smiling during competition.
“Girl, you have to put your game face on,” the coach would scold.
But the smile was Gabby’s game face. Smiling isn’t an element in judging, but her attitude doesn’t hurt Douglas with the judges and the crowds. How do you not appreciate someone who treats her sport like it’s pure joy?
“I don’t know how or where we ever got this stone-cold face,” said 2008 superstar Shawn Johnson, who also presented a dazzling smile. “I loved competing, I loved the fans and I loved everything. I soaked it up and it’s when I was at my happiest, and I think a lot of the girls would say the same thing. But they feel they can’t show it. I don’t get that.”
Now the U.S. girls have a role model in the Flying Squirrel.
London bound: U.S. women’s and men’s gymnastics teams are picked for Olympics. B9