By JULIE JAG
LONDON — Squirrel!
Flying Squirrel to be more specific. That’s one of the nicknames for Team USA gymnast Gabby Douglas, and it was impossible not to be distracted by her as she dominated every facet of the Olympic women’s individual all-around competition on her way to winning gold Thursday at the O2 Arena in the riverside borough of North Greenwich.
“My little squirrel fly extra high today,” said national team coordinator Marta Karolyi. “What I admire is she performs with extreme lightness and I think that was one of the qualities that actually the international judges appreciated. She wasn’t struggling, she wasn’t just barely pulling through the skills, she was really flying through the air — just like her little name says.”
The 4-foot-11 Douglas held a strong lead heading into her final event, the floor exercise, where she hopped, bounced and, yes, flew to the gold medal. Russia’s Victoria Komova, who recorded the top score in qualifying, finished with silver. In a heartbreaking moment for the U.S. team, Aliya Mustafina, also of Russia, was awarded the bronze medal on a tiebreaker over Team USA captain Aly Raisman.
Raisman and Mustafina each finished the four-station event with scores of 59.566 points. Yet Mustafina edged the American on the sum of her three highest scores, the first tiebreaker, and mostly on the strength of a jaw-dropping 16.1 she posted to win the uneven bars. Likewise, a shaky balance beam performance realistically cost Raisman the medal.
“I’m definitely really sad,” said Raisman, trying to put on a brave face, “but I’m really excited for Gabby.”
Douglas shined on each apparatus, but her performance on the balance beam really set her apart. Karolyi said that as recently as five months ago, Douglas — whom she called an “average-good gymnast” at the time — would get easily distracted whenever she mounted the beam, using the opportunity to search for friends and family in the stands. With the individual title on the line, and with an arena of close to 20,000 fans — many of them waving American flags and chanting “U-S-A! U-S-A” — to search, Douglas tried to keep herself disciplined.
“It’s very tough for me to focus. I’m kind of like ‘Focus! … Oh, something shiny. Focus! … Oh, there’s a butterfly,’” Douglas said. “It’s hard for me to maintain my focus, but if you want to stay on top then you have to do it. You have to learn to focus and train your body. Every time someone went, would turn my back and focus and take it one routine at a time.”
But what else would you expect from a 15-year-old?
Douglas, who will turn 16 on Dec. 31, is the second-youngest girl to win the all-around title in Olympic history. The youngest, of course, is gymnastics legend Nadia Comaneci, who at 14 won gold for Romania in 1976.
That’s not the last of Douglas’ firsts, either. She holds claim to being the first to win gold in both the individual all-around and the team championship, which the USA’s Fantastic Five did Tuesday. She gave the U.S. its third straight women’s Olympic all-around champion, a first for a nation since the Soviet Union won the first three in 1952, ’56 and ’60.
And there’s that one other thing, perhaps her most significant first.
“People keep saying I’m the first African American to win the (individual) gold medal,” said Douglas, who still has a chance to add to her medal collection in the individual uneven bars and balance beam events, “and I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, I forgot about that.’ It’s amazing.”
Douglas actually was the only African American in the competition. To her credit, she stood out more for her performances than her skin color.
Douglas started the afternoon on top, winning the vault with a score of 15.966. She placed third on the uneven bars behind the Russian pair. Then, after a long wait as the judges tallied a beam score for Mustafina, who had fallen off the apparatus, she took the top score in that event too. All that was left was the floor routine, the same one, performed with the same big smile that won her the U.S. Olympic Trials title in June.
“She demonstrated today that she can handle the toughest job,” Douglas’ coach Liang Chow said. “Wonderful effort, wonderful performance under huge pressure for 15 years old. That was fabulous.”
Throughout the competition, Douglas’ coach had commanded Douglas not to look at her scores. Speaking to the press after the medal ceremony, Chow commended her on being so disciplined.
“I kept my eye on her every single minute and she never looked up,” he said.
Well, that might not exactly be true.
“I snuck a peak,” Douglas said. “I looked up after vault and after bars … and after beam and after floor.”
OK, maybe the Flying Squirrel wasn’t as focused as she could have been throughout the competition. But she certainly held her own attention — and that of the audience and the judges — when it counted.
Contact Julie Jag at email@example.com or follow her on twitter @julie_jag. For more Olympics coverage, visit the Across the Pond blog at http://www.scsacrossthepond.wordpress.com