As Gabrielle Douglas stepped up to mount the balance beam at the world championships in Tokyo last month, U.S. gymnastics fans -- and at least one member of the national team staff -- collectively held their breath.
Just six weeks earlier, the 15-year-old from Virginia Beach, Va., had seemed an unlikely candidate to make the world team. Though considered one of the Americans' most talented young athletes, Douglas had a dismal U.S. championships in August, falling from the balance beam four times over the two-day competition.
It seemed improbable Douglas would contend for a spot on the world team. Yet there she was last month in Tokyo, anchoring the U.S. beam lineup during the team prelims, called into action after an injury sidelined U.S. team leader Alicia Sacramone.
It was the kind of moment that fast-tracks a gymnastics career. And one Gabrielle Douglas had been working on for more than a decade.
Douglas began turning cartwheels when she was 3. She learned the move by copying her older sister Arielle, who was taking gymnastics at the time. "She just picked it up very easily," her mother Natalie Hawkins recalled. "She started doing cartwheels, and we noticed that they were just perfect." But when Arielle broke her wrist doing back handsprings, Hawkins decided she wasn't interested in another daughter risking injuries in the sport.
Douglas, however, wouldn't stop doing cartwheels. She taught herself to do them one-handed, then no-handed: finally, Hawkins capitulated when Douglas was 6. "I thought it would help Gabrielle stop climbing and flipping off the furniture," she said. After Douglas' first lesson at a hometown gym, the instructor came out to talk to Hawkins. The first question was, "How much gymnastics has Gabrielle already had?"
Soon after, Douglas enrolled at Excalibur Gymnastics, which had an elite training program. She made the U.S. junior team in 2010.
Teaming with Chow
Liang Chow, who coached Shawn Johnson to the Olympic beam title in 2008, met Douglas when he came to Excalibur to give a clinic in July, 2010. "What vault does she do," he asked someone after watching her warm up. A double-twisting Yurchenko, he was told.
Chow thought they were kidding. Surely, this young powerhouse was working a Yurchenko with two and a half twists, he thought, so he directed Douglas to try the vault with an extra half twist. Fifteen minutes later, she had landed her first Amanar, one of the most difficult vaults currently being done in the world.
Chow returned to his gym in West Des Moines, Iowa, that week, but a seed had been planted in Douglas' mind: She wanted to change gyms, and she would convince her mother to let her train with Chow.
Hawkins was more in favor of moving to Texas, where they had family. There, Douglas would be able to train at WOGA under Valeri Liukin, who had coached his daughter, Nastia, to the 2008 Olympic all-around title. "But Gabrielle just kept saying Chow -- I want to work with Chow," Hawkins said.
Hawkins was torn, but Douglas' three older siblings -- Arielle, 22, Joyelle, 18 and Johnathan, 17 -- sided with their younger sister. One evening they all marched into Hawkins' bedroom and asked for a family meeting. Then they lobbied her to let Douglas go to Iowa.
"They had a list. They said, 'Here are the pros,'" Hawkins said. "The only con was: 'We're going to miss her.'"
The winding path to worlds
So Douglas moved to Iowa and boarded with a local family. Her improvement, especially on uneven bars, was palpable earlier this year, but a hamstring strain and a hip flexor injury sidelined her in July. While it gave her extra time to work bars, it restricted what she could do on the other three events. Chow debated whether it was worth the risk of aggravating the injury by having Douglas do all four events at the U.S. championships. An orthopedic surgeon suggested she take six weeks off. Douglas flatly refused.
"The hamstring problem is that you don't know how much you want to push it," Chow said. Their ultimate goal was to get Douglas experience at one of the two big international meets in October -- either the world championships or the Pan American Games. So before the U.S. championships, Chow went to national team coordinator Martha Karolyi and asked whether Karolyi felt Douglas should be pushed to compete.
"Martha gave her a direction that she wanted to see what she could do," Chow said. "But we were not fully ready."
I feel like I have proved myself since [the U.S. championships]. I'm really proud of myself. I know I can perform my routines.” -- Gabrielle Douglas
The numerous falls off balance beam reflected that lack of preparation.
"Beam at nationals was ... kind of not myself," Douglas said. "Not confident. But I was working to gain the experience, to learn how to compete when I need to."
Still, Karolyi saw Douglas' potential. "She is an extremely talented girl, but she was the one who used to have some jitters in pressure situations, as we saw at the U.S. championships," Karolyi said. "But after that we had a long training camp and she was included in a group with a group spirit and with the group preparation requirements and attitude and general approach toward the worlds, and she responded really well."
In addition, Douglas' best event was uneven bars, and it was the U.S. team's weakest. Without at least one especially strong routine on bars, the Americans would be less likely to contend for the world title. In the end, Karolyi and the selection committee chose Douglas and Anna Li, another strong bar worker, to round out the Tokyo world team. Douglas would be the youngest competitor at worlds -- born on the last day possible, Dec. 31, 1995, to be age-eligible for the meet.
Aiming for 2012
Her successful, fall-free beam routine in Tokyo lasted less than 90 seconds, but it changed Gabrielle Douglas' Olympic prospects enormously. At the end of the preliminary round, Douglas was ranked fifth in the world in the all-around. She also finished tied for fifth on uneven bars, despite a small error in event finals. But the best part was earning the gold medal with the U.S. team.
"I just went and did my thing," she said of the hit bar routine she contributed during team finals. "My routine, I was just like, we can do this. USA's got this in the bag."
Where before she seemed like an outside shot to make the 2012 Olympic team, it now appears that Douglas' stock is rising, and she's determined to do everything in her power to see that this continues.
"I feel like I have proved myself since [the U.S. championships]. I'm really proud of myself," she said. "I know I can perform my routines."
Next for Douglas is "higher difficulty on everything," she said. That includes the Amanar vault she and Chow began working a year ago, as well as some new skills they're keeping to themselves for the moment.
Does she feel the pressure that comes with being a world champion?
"It's not really too much pressure," Douglas remarked. "You just need to learn to go out there and perform your routines," she added a moment later, sounding like the seasoned veteran she now is.