Gabby Douglas, by any nickname, is the star of London Games
By Sally Jenkins,
LONDON — Gabby Douglas needs a new nickname. “The Flying Squirrel” doesn’t do her justice; squirrels are sort of cute and acrobatic, but they are also common. Douglas is a history-making Olympic gold medalist and she needs an upgrade please, something with more elegance, with an air.
Granted, it’s difficult. How do you come up with a big name for a gymnast so tiny and jewel-like she could hang from a charm bracelet?
Consider this the start of a write-in campaign. Let’s get creative. Fab Gab? A little too flip. We need something more representative of that sweet shimmering electricity Douglas showed in winning the individual all-around title, which is still in the air a full day later. Something reflective of her ability to “just show it off and perform,” as Douglas puts it. Something with the lightness that is her predominant quality, yet that suggests her gutsy ability to throw it down on the mat when the stakes are highest.
“The pressure is not for us to do bad things,” Douglas said after she came down from the medal podium. “It should make us do better and greater things.”
“Gabbulous,” Dominique Dawes called her. That’s pretty good, and it’s especially meaningful because it comes from the first woman of color ever to win an individual Olympic medal in gymnastics, a leading member of the USA’s beloved 1996 Magnificent Seven team. When Douglas studied tapes of great gymnasts, it wasn’t Nastasia Liukin or Shawn Johnson she most wanted to emulate, it was Dawes. “I wanted to be a . . . her,” Douglas said the other night.
The two have become friendly, and Dawes was in the arena Thursday night working as a reporter when Douglas’s performance reached its crescendo. As the scores flashed showing Douglas had upset Victoria Komova of Russia, Dawes sprinted into a TV studio to file her report. And then she burst into tears.
“I was just on the edge of my seat, having no control but knowing this young girl was about to make history,” Dawes says.
Her nickname should of course have star quality, worthy of someone who was tweeted by Mariah Carey, and raved about by Serena Williams.
“I had chill bumps,” Williams said. “Oh my gosh. I’m obsessed with Gabby Douglas. I love her, she’s gorgeous.
“I want my picture with her. Of course, I might have to hold her because she might be too small.”
The Great Gabbino? That has the right sense of waggish immortality. The Flying Phenom? Pretty good, but a little banal. The Flightweight Champion of the World?
On Friday morning, Douglas did the “Today Show” and bantered with Savannah Guthrie like a veteran of stage and screen. There was the obligatory talk of a Wheaties box, and of the endorsement bonanza that’s surely headed her way. But also of the effect she will have on all the small girls doing cartwheels who never thought, before yesterday, that gymnastics was a sport that could be for them.
“I think it’s going to be larger than the impact I made,” Dawes says.
The Great Gabbsby.
The Gifted Gab.
The name should convey her stoical confidence and preternatural composure, and her liveliness, too. She only looked grimly focused on the outside; inwardly a little lingering immaturity preyed on her. She disobeyed the orders of her coach not to look at the scoreboard. Focus, Liang Chow told her; don’t waste energy looking at the marks and worrying about the other gymnasts, or about demerits from the judges. Stay calm, and focus on the performance and the results would come by themselves, he told her. But for all of her training, she couldn’t resist.
“I took a quick peek,” she admitted.
“After vault,” she grinned. “And bars. And beam, and floor.” She laughed. “I just had to see.”
A quick glance after each event told her she was consistently on top of the leader board — but only by fractions. For all of the peeking, she still had that seemingly endless uncertain wait as Komova fluttered brilliantly through her floor exercise, and the judges decided in their oh-so-subjective way to whom to give the gold.
“It was a crucial moment,” she told NBC. “My heart was just pounding, and it was definitely nerve-wracking. I was like, ‘Okay, do I have it? Do I not?’ ”
She had it. And the nickname should suggest her own description of what it took to get it: “Determination, passion, drive,” she says.
But above all, whatever name Douglas becomes known by should convey a sense of sweet surprise. Two years ago she was just another 14-year-old struggling to fight her way out of the pack of little doll in unitards. If Douglas has a signature, unforgettable quality, it’s her fleet hummingbird ascendance.
“The thing I love about it,” Dawes says, “is that coming into the Olympics everyone was saying who they projected the sweetheart would be. And she flew under the radar.”
For Sally Jenkins’s previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.
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