Friday, November 24, 2017

Gary Shelton at the Games: American Gabby Douglas wins all-around gymnastics gold


LONDON — She was no longer leaping. She was flying.

Gabby Douglas was so high, impossibly high. She kept racing across the mat, and she would launch herself toward the top of the building, and she would spin and twist and flip. She was parachutist high, Flying Wallenda high, touch-the-sky high.

In the end, that was the question. Of all the gymnasts who had competed before her, did any of them reach the heights Douglas did Thursday? Has any American gymnast ever had the potential to seed the dreams of more young gymnasts?

She was no longer smiling. She had become a human spotlight.

She beamed so wide and so high, and you could see every tooth in her head and every bit of joy in her soul. At that moment, you could imagine how many marketing experts were prepared to put their products — shoes, cereals, apparel — into her hands. It was, famed gymnastics coach Bela Karolyi later agreed, the greatest smile in the history of gymnastics.

There is so much sparkle inside Douglas. Some athletes are that way. You don't just watch them, you share their joy. You smile along with them. You share their moments. Douglas is that way. She has so much pizzazz, so much personalty, she hits you like a human energy drink.

This was the night Douglas arrived. This was when the Flying Squirrel, as she is called, stopped being merely a gymnast and became an icon, when she stopped being a dreamer and became the poster on the walls of a million young gymnasts across her nation. Black kids, white kids, all kids.

Say hello to Gabby Douglas.

She is going to be a very, very big deal.

Douglas twisted and contorted her way into America's heart Thursday. She not only won the gold medal in the Olympic women's all-around competition, she also became the first black gymnast to win the all-around. For a lot of kids, that's going to open the doors to a sport that hasn't had enough faces of color over the years.

"Oh, yeah," Douglas said. "I had forgotten about that. That's amazing. I feel so honored."

Douglas talks like that, all fast and bubbly. The words gush out of her, this cliche and that one about believing in yourself and going for it and, wow, everything is possible. She is 16, after all, and she is so darned happy that she bounces in place. She giggles. She says "wow" a lot. She is a bouncing ball of good mood.

It wasn't that long ago that Douglas was the talented but inconsistent performer on the American team. She was 14 when she left her home in Virginia Beach, Va., to move to Iowa to train. Everyone could see her talent, but it is only recently that she has managed to harness it. Over her career, there rarely had been a good performance that wasn't chased by a bad one.

Now she is a champion, the first American woman to win the all-around and the team gold in the same Olympics. She made herself millions with that performance.

"I guarantee she's going to be a star now, a huge star," Karolyi said. "There's going to be a crazy boom, especially among African-American kids. A huge exposition in the participation. That's beautiful."

In a lot of places, gymnastics is still a predominantly white sport. Yeah, Douglas has noticed. She jokes about how different it can feel.

"It's definitely strange," Douglas said. "I'd be listening to rap music, and I'm like 'Oh, you don't know this song?' And they would say 'Do you like country?' And I'd go 'Oh, this is awkward.' "

She laughed again, and then she turned on the smile again, and you realized how universal her appeal is. Kids of every color are going to want to be like Douglas. First, of course, they must get the "wows" down.

"Tonight she was in the category of Nadia (Comaneci) and Mary Lou (Retton)," Karolyi said, referring to two gymnasts he coached who won the all-around, in 1976 and 1984, respectively. "She wasn't before this, but she is now."

Oh, it was a little shaky at the end. There was a long moment that felt like a week when the entire arena stared at the scoreboard. Douglas had performed well in the floor exercise, her final event, but she was awarded a score that seemed a bit low, to tell the truth. It was as if the judges were trying to give Russian Victoria Komova a chance to win with a great performance. And, yes, Komova was very good.

So everyone looked up, Douglas and Komova and volunteers and ushers and competitors who had no chance of medaling. It was an agonizing wait, a performance that had been turned over to mathematicians.

"It was nerve-wracking," Douglas said. "Man, my heart was racing. 'Do I have it? Do I not have it? Am I first? Am I second? Do I? Do I really?' "

Then the scores flashed, and she had won, Komova was second, and the tears flowed, and Douglas was smiling, and the anthem was playing, and the flashbulbs were firing, and people were cheering, and her mother was waving, and the moment that was better than her dreams was embracing her.

Soon, her country will be doing the same. After all, America loves nothing more than a new star.

As Douglas might say: Wow.


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