Sixteen-year-old Gabby Douglas made history by not only becoming the first African-American gymnast to win the all-around Olympic title during the 2012 games in London, but she also became the first to win any individual gold in gymnastics.
LONDON – The Olympic all-around title is gymnastics’ biggest prize, and it can turn a sprite into an international superstar overnight. The world is still on a first-name basis with Nadia and Mary Lou, and [Gabby] Douglas could wind up being bigger than both of them.
Adults want to hug her, and little girls shriek at the sight of her. Her smile alone is enough to dazzle Madison Avenue, and her personality gives new meaning to the word “outsized.” Not only is she the first African-American gymnast to win the all-around title, she’s the first to win any individual gold in gymnastics. Throw in her adorable “Flying Squirrel” nickname, and the back story of leaving home at 14 to pursue an Olympic dream and, guaranteed, her life will never be the same.
Too excited to sleep and too early to wander the Olympic village, Douglas messaged her family and asked if they could have a video chat.
When her mom turned on the computer, there sat her daughter, eyes wide, hands on her cheeks, mouth agape.
“It reminded me of Macaulay Culkin in ‘Home Alone,’” said Natalie Hawkins, Douglas’ mother.
And this was before the 16-year-old Olympic all-around champion got her own cereal box cover, hobnobbed with Matt, Al and others at NBC’s “Today” show, and had tweet-happy celebrities eager to be her new BFFs.
“It’s pretty exciting,” Douglas said a day after winning the title. “It really hasn’t hit me yet.”
Apparently not. She forgot to bring her gold medal with her for the rounds of meet and greet.
Hang on, kid, this is only the warm-up.
“Oh my gosh, yes,” said Mary Lou Retton, whose all-around title in 1984 was the first by a U.S. woman. “She won’t know until she goes home.”
Those around her, though, are already getting a taste of things to come.
Seconds after Douglas beat Viktoria Komova on Aug. 2, talk show hosts David Letterman and Jay Leno had already contacted her agent, Sheryl Shade. Considering Oprah Winfrey tweeted her congratulations, it’s a safe bet she wants to have a chat with Douglas, too. Kellogg’s worked overtime to get her picture on the cover of a cereal box – not just any picture, mind you, but a photo of her on the medals stand.
“It’s definitely an amazing experience,” Douglas said.
Especially considering she wasn’t even in the conversation for the all-around title at the start of the year, and that she only turned pro in March after upstaging world champion Jordyn Wieber at the American Cup in New York.
By midmorning Friday, Shade had already received more than 750 emails, some simply congratulating Douglas, most from folks who wanted a piece of her – businesses, talk shows, magazines. And not just in the United States, either.
“It’s the whole package,” said Shade, referring to Douglas’ appeal. “It’s her personality. It’s her freshness. She’s not been packaged.”
Douglas is well aware her title carries weight beyond her sport – “I’m the first African-American to win the all-around, my name’s in the history books,” she said Friday – and she’s eager to embrace the responsibility. She wants to be a role model, particularly for minority children, and Shade said they’ve already talked to Kellogg’s about an outreach program. They’ve also been in contact with first lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” campaign, aimed at tackling childhood obesity and promoting sports.
“She’s going to break barriers on so many different levels,” Retton said.
There are downsides to fame, too, and Douglas quickly got a taste of it. The Internet was abuzz over criticism of her hair – it wasn’t styled to everyone’s liking – a topic she simply laughed off.
“I thought it was kind of bizarre,” she said.
And forget about being able to go anywhere without being recognized.
“I’m definitely not going to escape it – unless I wear a disguise,” she said, brightening to the idea. “A mustache. A wig, maybe.”
Douglas admitted one of the first things she did when she got up was Google herself. She loved scanning all the photos. Even better was scrolling through her Twitter feeds, and noting how many celebrities sent congratulations: NFL quarterback Michael Vick; Oscar winner Octavia Spencer; rapper Timbaland; actresses Gabrielle Union and Elizabeth Banks; singer Ciara; Mr. Summer Games himself, Michael Phelps; her celebrity crush, Ian Somerhalder from “The Vampire Diaries.”
Douglas insists she plans to compete through the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro.
Of course, she may feel differently when she considers the avalanche of invitations sure to come for appearances, commercials and star-studded events like the Oscars and Grammys. Gymnasts Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson, who finished 1-2 in Beijing, discovered the demands of elite-level gymnastics aren’t always compatible with once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.
But Douglas is only 16 – she turns 17 on Dec. 31 – and the prospect of becoming the first all-around champion to try to defend her title since Nadia Comaneci in 1980 might be enough to entice her to stick around.
“I don’t think I’m going to retire just yet,” she said. “People tell me I’m too young, I should stick with it.”
Meanwhile, she’s out to find Usain Bolt and Venus and Serena Williams. There’s also that trip back to her hometown of Virginia Beach, Va., that she can’t wait to take.
Douglas hasn’t been home since moving to West Des Moines, Iowa, almost two years ago, and she’s craving her favorite popcorn from Jody’s – “It’s like a Willy Wonka store.” She wants to see her dogs and sleep in her old bed, too.
It’s all very normal for a girl whose life will now be anything but.
“You have to cherish these moments,” Douglas said. “It’s definitely amazing.”