For all her outward joy, the 16-year-old has wrestled with painful choices and given up a tremendous amount to pursue her dream of becoming an Olympic champion, including leaving her family in Virginia Beach at 14 to move to West Des Moines, Iowa, to train with the coach of 2008 gold medalist Shawn Johnson.
“It definitely has made me stronger and more mature,” says Douglas, who lives with a foster family and is pursuing her high school studies online. “And it’s temporary. I’m not going to be away from them forever.”
With a broad smile she glances at her mother, Natalie Hawkins, who accompanied her on a recent round of interviews, adding: “Our sacrifices are not in vain.”
Douglas, who prefers to be called “Gabby,” proved as much at the USA gymnastics national championships in May, winning gold on the uneven bars and getting edged by just two-tenths of a point for the all-around gold by defending champion Jordyn Wieber.
Next comes the 2012 U.S. Olympic trials, Thursday through Sunday in San Jose, where 15 women and 15 men will vie for just five spots each on the London-bound teams. Wieber and Douglas, both 16, appear certain picks. But the stars of the 2008 Beijing Games may be missing.
Johnson, the 2008 gold medalist on beam, retired on the eve of last month’s national championships, unable to fully recover from a catastrophic knee injury.
And Nastia Liukin, 22, who won all-around gold in Beijing, faces long odds after a disappointing performance on beam and a poor showing on her signature event, the uneven bars, at nationals. Liukin’s comeback after a two-year hiatus has been slowed by a shoulder injury. And her chances of making the squad as a specialist, competing in only two of four events, aren’t helped by the Olympics’ reduced roster size, down from six in 2008.
The short shelf life of female gymnasts is among the harsh realities of a beautiful sport.
Injuries are another. And Douglas has had her share. She missed the 2009 national championships because of a broken wrist. In 2010, she struggled with a strained hip flexor and hamstring.
Sacrifice has been part of the journey, too.
It was Douglas’s idea to leave home at 14 for more rigorous training. Her own gym had “a lot of drama,” she confides, full of distracting gossip about boyfriends and breakups.
But it was a hard sell to her close-knit family.
“Emotion-wise, it took a lot,” Douglas says. “I had to convince my mom, and I had to convince my brother and sisters to convince my mom.”
But Johnson’s coach, Liang Chow, took her on. And the parents of a young gymnast at Chow’s, Missy and Travis Parton, took her in, agreeing to rear her in close collaboration with Hawkins.