LONDON — And a new Olympic sweetheart is born.
Gabby Douglas, aka “The Flying Squirrel,” catapulted into the American consciousness Thursday night with a transcendent performance in the women’s all-around, the crown jewel of the Olympics gymnastics program.
The bubbly athlete danced, tumbled and flung her way to the gold medal and into history two days after leading the United States to its first team goal medal in 16 years.
Hardly on the gymnastics radar a year ago, Douglas rode a meteoric ascent to celebrity status by demolishing 23 other competitors through the four-routine program. She posted a score of 62.232 points, almost three-tenths ahead of graceful Russian Viktoria Komova, who was inconsolable afterward.
Douglas also became the first African-American gold medalist in the event’s history.
American Alexandra Raisman, 18, lost the bronze medal in a tiebreaking rule her coach didn’t know existed. Russian Aliya Mustafina was awarded third place after officials dropped the lowest scores for both gymnasts to determine their placements.
From the first moment, though, it was the 4-foot-11 Douglas’ night. This 98-pound Squirrel came to the 02 Arena in North Greenwich as if intoxicated with fairy dust.
"I wanted to seize the moment," she said.
Douglas, 16, owned it with a performance that just might have overshadowed the incomparable Michael Phelps, who struck gold at the pool Thursday night.
The wunderkindfrom Virginia Beach, Va., was in command from the moment she launched into the world’s most technically difficult vault — a back handspring and 2½ twisting somersaults.
She didn’t let up. Except for a wobble here, a bobble there, Douglas roared to victory to become the third-consecutive American to win the coveted all-around title.
"You just have to not be afraid and go out there and just dominate," Douglas said while the Olympic gold medal dangled from her neck. "You have to go out there and be a beast. Because if you don’t, you’re not going to be on the top."
Douglas kept alive the strong gymnastics tradition started by gold-medal winner Carly Patterson at the 2004 Athens Games and Nastia Liukin in Beijing. But Douglas is the first American champion since Mary Lou Retton, in 1984, who can work a crowd with a 1,000-kilowatt smile that is sure to disarm folks across the country.
Douglas also came to Great Britain with the kind of a compelling back story that Americans love to embrace.
Two years ago, at age 14, she arrived in West Des Moines, Iowa, to train with Liang Chow, the man who coached famed gymnast Shawn Johnson in 2008. But Chow wasn’t so sure Douglas had what it took to reach the heights she did in London.
The more he trained Douglas, the more Chow realized he had been given a special talent. But it seemed Douglas worked out in a vacuum with all the attention going to Michigan’s Jordyn Wieber, the reigning world all-around champion.
Wieber, 17, started the year as the clear Olympic favorite but by the time the U.S. trials were held in June in San Jose, Douglas had all but caught her rival.
This American squad is so strong, Wieber didn’t qualify for the individual all-around competition after finishing fourth in the preliminaries. (Only two competitors from each country are eligible to advance to the final.)
While Wieber had to watch from the sideline, Douglas competed as if she owned the pink-decorated arena.
She is so precocious, as a 14-year-old two years ago she was able to persuade her mom to let her move to Iowa. But it took a full-blown campaign because initially Natalie Hawkins was not having it.
Hawkins finally relented when her two other daughters supported Douglas’ decision to leave home. Douglas moved in with Missy Parton, whose daughter also trained with Chow. The gymnast calls the Partons her second family.
Douglas’ father, Timothy, is an Air Force staff sergeant who recently served a six-month tour in Afghanistan. He surprised his daughter by showing up at HP Pavilion during the U.S. trials.
The self-assured Douglas has shown no fear of her growing celebrity. She even welcomes the attention for being the first African-American gold medalist in the prestigious event.
"Yeah, I kind of forgot about that," Douglas said of the barrier-breaking moment. "I hope that I inspire people. My mother said you can inspire a nation."
If nothing else she can entertain one.
"I just told myself, ‘Believe,’ " Douglas said. —’Don’t fear, just believe.’ "
With the gold medal in the balance, she executed a dazzling floor exercise, the event in which Douglas showcases her lighter side all while performing gravity-defying aerial flips that seem preternaturally launched.
"She performs with extreme lightness," U.S. team coordinator Marta Karolyi said. Douglas also brings power and precision to the table.
Once upon a time, they’d have called it a perfect 10.