LONDON - The moment was both overwhelming and unbelievable. After U.S. gymnast Gabby Douglas made history Thursday by becoming the first African-American to win the all-around Olympic gold, there was so much to process. Her stunning rise the last months, from a bundle of nerves to a confident star. The joy of winning the most coveted title in her sport. The rocket ship ride from relative unknown to being recognized by the President of the United States, Oprah and the rest of the Olympic-watching world.
Then there was this bit of social significance, no small matter. Just 16, she is now a pioneer.
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"Someone mentioned that I was the first black American (to win the all-around gold), and I said, 'Oh yeah, I forgot about that!' I feel so honored," she said with a laugh.
Competing in a predominantly white sport, Douglas said, "I hope that I inspire people. I want to inspire people. My mother said you can inspire a nation."
In her final event, the floor, Douglas began her routine to cheers of "Go Gabby!" As her techno music played, she soon turned North Greenwich Arena into Club Gabby.
When Douglas stood in the center of the arena to accept her medal, she said it felt as if she were at a concert. "All those flashes," Douglas said.
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Douglas put on a show, leading from start to finish, beating Russia's Victoria Komova by .259 of a point. Russia's Aliya Mustafina took the bronze. American Aly Raisman finished with the same score as Mustafina, but missed the bronze due to a tie-breaker rule that adds the top three of four event scores.
"I'm really happy for Gabby," said Raisman, the team captain. "She's been working really hard so I'm really excited for her, but it's definitely really frustrating because we (Mustafina) tied for third place. I was so close."
Missing among the 24 gymnasts competing for the title was reigning world champion Jordyn Wieber, who finished fourth in qualifying but third on her team. Only two gymnasts from each country are allowed to advance to the finals. Afterward Wieber, who has dominated the sport the past two years, told Douglas, via Twitter, "You are the Olympic all around champion and you deserve it girl."
Douglas became the fourth U.S. gymnast to capture the coveted all-around title, following Mary Lou Retton (1984), Carly Patterson (2004) and Nastia Liukin (2008). Douglas' win came two days after the Americans won the team gold, further underscoring the program's dominance. An American woman has now won the all-around title at the last three Olympics, marking the first time a women's program has achieved this feat since the Soviets (1952-60).
When a U.S. gymnast wins a gold medal in the all-around final, she instantly becomes on a first-name basis with her country.
America, here's Gabby.
At 14, Douglas moved from her family in Virginia Beach to train in Des Moines, Iowa with Liang Chow, who also coached Shawn Johnson, the 2008 Olympic silver medalist. Leaving home at such a young age and adjusting to a new environment and host family was challenging.
Nonetheless, the move helped transform a raw talent into an Olympic champion. Douglas' progress in the last five months was particularly remarkable.
"She showed such great improvement, it is incredible in such a short time," said U.S. team coordinator Marta Karolyi "I have never seen an average but good gymnast climb up to be the best in the world (in such a short time). That's the truth."
Letting her youngest daughter leave home and move in with a host family wasn't easy for Natalie Hawkins, Douglas' mother. "I just think in life you have one time to get it right," Hawkins said earlier this summer. "There are not many times you can go back and do it over. I said to her, 'I don't want you to move away but if this is what you feel you need to go to the next level to make your dreams come true, I'm aboard.' "
Before her flight landed, Douglas remembers looking down at the endless rows of corn fields thinking, "Where's the water? Where's everything?"
Those questions soon didn't matter. Her host family, the Partons, made her feel at home. She soon became a big sister to their four younger daughters. "She's like my fifth daughter," said Travis Parton, who was in the stands with his wife, Missy, and Douglas' mother, sisters and brother.
Thursday when Douglas headed to arena where she would soon make history, a light rain fell. She smiled and quickly texted her mother. "It's raining outside, mom. Do you know what that means?" she wrote.
For some, rain means covering up, rushing inside, complaining. For Douglas, it always has been a reason to smile, to run outside and splash in the puddles. Rain was a sign that it was going to be a great day, a sign of God's will. It was something Douglas' mother always told her.
If much of the beauty of music is the silence between the notes, the same might be said about raindrops. Douglas has always seen what others don't, the beauty between the raindrops.
It didn't matter that most times she was the only black girl in the gym. She loved what she was doing.
"It was definitely strange. It was so strange," she said. She'd be listening to a rap song and a fellow gymnast wouldn't know the music. "You don't know this song? Oh sorry." And they would say, you don't country?"
Then she added, in that typical teenage voice, "This is awkward."
Still., there were many struggles along the way. Paying for the expensive training and travel that an elite gymnast requires was difficult, especially when Hawkins was on long-term medical disability from a job at a financial services company. Her parents are divorced but Douglas' father Timothy, a reservist in the military who has done tours in Afghanistan, was also gone for long stretches.
But in the end, the sacrifices were all worth it. "I'm so happy for her, so thrilled," Hawkins said as her daughter left the arena with a gold medal around her neck. "I love her and I'm so proud of her."
She said she hopes it will inspire other girls to take chances, to follow their dreams. "I hope they will see that there's no struggle that's too hard," Hawkins said. "There's no difficulty that's too big. ... You can strive for your dream no matter what. You have to take those chances. If it works out, great, if not have no regrets."
There were certainly none Thursday. This was her night, her concert. "I just wanted to go on the floor and treat it like the trials," Douglas said. "Just show it off and perform. You have to learn to enjoy and seize the moment."