In a shopping mall or amusement park, Gabrielle Douglas could easily be mistaken for a child who got separated from her parents. At barely 5 feet tall and 94 pounds, she could get overlooked entirely.
But when she’s flipping along a four-inch wide balance beam or whipping around the uneven bars, there’s nothing childlike about this competitor who may emerge as one of the big stars of the 2012 Olympics.
For all of her outward joy, the 16-year-old has wrestled with painful choices and given up much to chase her Olympic dream, including leaving her family in Virginia Beach, Va., at 14 to move to West Des Moines, Iowa, to train with the coach of 2008 gold medalist Shawn Johnson.
“It definitely has made me stronger and more mature,” says Douglas, who lives with a host family and pursues her high school studies online.
With a broad smile, she glances at her mother, Natalie Hawkins, who accompanied her on a recent round of interviews, adding: “Our sacrifices are not in vain.”
Douglas, who prefers to be called “Gabby,” proved as much at the USA gymnastics national championships in May, winning gold on the uneven bars and getting edged by just two-tenths of a point for the all-around gold by defending champion Jordyn Wieber.
Now comes the 2012 U.S. Olympic trials, today through Sunday in San Jose, Calif., where 15 women and 15 men will vie for just five spots each on the London-bound teams. Wieber and Douglas, both 16, appear to be certain picks. But the stars of the 2008 Beijing Games may be missing.
Johnson, the 2008 gold medalist on the beam, retired on the eve of last month’s national championships, unable to recover from a knee injury.
And Nastia Liukin, 22, who won all-around gold in Beijing, faces long odds after a disappointing performance on the beam and a poor showing on her top event, the uneven bars, at nationals.
Liukin’s chances of making the squad as a specialist, competing in only two of four events, aren’t helped by the Olympics’ reduced roster size, down from six in 2008.
The short competitive life of female gymnasts is among the harsh realities of a beautiful sport. Injuries are another. And Douglas has had her share. She missed the 2009 nationals because of a broken wrist. In 2010, she struggled with other strains.
Sacrifice has been part of the journey, too.
It was Douglas’ idea to leave home at 14 for more rigorous training. Her own gym had “a lot of drama,” she says, full of distracting gossip about boyfriends and breakups.
But it was a hard sell to her close-knit family.
“Emotion-wise, it took a lot,” Douglas says. “I had to convince my mom, and I had to convince my brother and sisters to convince my mom.”
But Johnson’s coach, Liang Chow, took her on. And the parents of a young gymnast at Chow’s, Missy and Travis Parton, took her in, agreeing to rear her in close collaboration with Hawkins.
Johnson, who was trying a return to gymnastics after winning “Dancing with the Stars,” acknowledges a bit of ambivalence over sharing her West Des Moines gym with an elite teammate.
“It was like sharing my dad for the first time,” Johnson recalls, “and I didn’t know if I wanted a sister.”
But Johnson found she loved being pushed by her athletic teammate. And she found she loved mentoring Douglas.
“I’ve become a proud mama,” Johnson says.
Then in January, Douglas told her mother she wanted to move back to Virginia, a decision that would have thrown her preparation for London in disarray.
Hawkins, who describes her daughter as “a wise old soul,” reminded her that she had worked nearly 10 years to become an Olympian.
“You have this opportunity, and opportunities like this don’t come around very often in a lifetime,” Hawkins said.
Days later, Douglas called home to say she was staying.
Since then, “the Flying Squirrel,” as U.S. national team coordinator Marta Karolyi calls Douglas, has improved at a breathtaking pace.
Her forte is the uneven bars. She’s equally athletic on the balance beam.
Douglas’ words tumble out faster than stunts in her floor routine, so eager is she to describe her passion for gymnastics, her love of her two families and her hobbies and heroes. Nearly every sentence ends with a giggle and implicit exclamation point.
Iowa has become this Virginian’s home, a nurturing stop on the road to a dream in London, where Douglas’ three proud mothers — Natalie Hawkins, Missy Parton and Shawn Johnson — will cheer their daughter on.