NEW YORK — When Gabby Douglas allowed herself to dream of being the Olympic champion, she imagined having a nice little dinner with family and friends to celebrate. Maybe she’d make an appearance here and there.
“I didn’t think it was going to be crazy,” Douglas said, laughing. “I love it. But I realized my perspective was going to have to change.”
Just a bit.
The teenager has become a worldwide star since winning the Olympic all-around title in London, the first African-American gymnast to claim gymnastics’ biggest prize. And now she has earned another honor. Douglas was selected The Associated Press’ female athlete of the year, edging out swimmer Missy Franklin in a vote by U.S. editors and news directors that was announced Friday.
“I didn’t realize how much of an impact I made,” said Douglas, who turns 17 on Dec. 31. “My mom and everyone said, ‘You really won’t know the full impact until you’re 30 or 40 years old.’ But it’s starting to sink in.”
In a year filled with standout performances by female athletes, those of the pint-sized gymnast shined brightest. Douglas received 48 of 157 votes, seven more than Franklin, who won four gold medals and a bronze in London. Serena Williams, who won Wimbledon and the U.S. Open two years after her career was nearly derailed by a series of health problems, was third (24).
Britney Griner, who led Baylor to a 40-0 record and the NCAA title, and skier Lindsey Vonn each got 18 votes. Sprinter Allyson Felix, who won three gold medals in London, and Carli Lloyd, who scored both U.S. goals in the Americans’ 2-1 victory over Japan in the gold-medal game, also received votes.
“One of the few years the women’s (Athlete of the Year) choices are more compelling than the men’s,” said Julie Jag, sports editor of the Santa Cruz Sentinel.
Douglas is the fourth gymnast to win one of the AP’s annual awards, which began in 1931, and first since Mary Lou Retton in 1984. She also finished 15th in voting for the AP sports story of the year.
Douglas wasn’t even in the conversation for the Olympic title at the beginning of the year. That all changed in March when she upstaged reigning world champion and teammate Jordyn Wieber at the American Cup in New York, showing off a new vault, an ungraded uneven bars routine and a dazzling personality that would be a hit on Broadway and Madison Avenue.
She finished a close second to Wieber at the U.S. championships, then beat her two weeks later at the Olympic trials. With each competition, her confidence grew. So did that smile.
By the time the Americans got to London, Douglas had emerged as the most consistent gymnast on what was arguably the best team the U.S. has ever had.
She posted the team’s highest score on all but one event in qualifying. She was the only gymnast to compete in all four events during team finals, when the Americans beat the Russians in a rout for their second Olympic title, and first since 1996. Two nights later, Douglas claimed the grandest prize of all, joining Retton, Carly Patterson and Nastia Liukin as what Bela Karolyi likes to call the “Queen of Gymnastics.”
But while plenty of other athletes won gold medals in London, none captivated the public quite like Gabby.
Fans ask for hugs in addition to photographs and autographs, and people have left restaurants and cars upon spotting her. She made Barbara Walters’ list of “10 Most Fascinating People,” and Forbes recently named her one of its “30 Under 30.” She has deals with Nike, Kellogg Co. and AT&T, and agent Sheryl Shade said Douglas has drawn interest from companies that don’t traditionally partner with Olympians or athletes.
“She touched so many people of all generations, all diversities,” Shade said. “It’s her smile, it’s her youth, it’s her excitement for life. … She transcends sport.”
Douglas’ story is both heartwarming and inspiring, its message applicable those young or old, male or female, active or couch potato. She was just 14 when she convinced her mother to let her leave their Virginia Beach, Va., home and move to West Des Moines, Iowa, to train with Liang Chow, Shawn Johnson’s coach. Though her host parents, Travis and Missy Parton, treated Douglas as if she was their fifth daughter, Douglas was so homesick she considered quitting gymnastics.
She’s also been open about her family’s financial struggles, hoping she can be a role model for lower income children.
“I want people to think, ‘Gabby can do it, I can do it,’” Douglas said. “Set that bar. If you’re going through struggles or injuries, don’t let it stop you from what you want to accomplish.”
The grace she showed under pressure — both on and off the floor — added to her appeal. When some fans criticized the way she wore her hair during the Olympics, Douglas simply laughed it off.
“They can say whatever they want. We all have a voice,” she said. “I’m not going to focus on it. I’m not really going to focus on the negative.”
Besides, she’s having far too much fun.
Her autobiography, “Grace, Gold and Glory,” is No. 4 on the New York Times’ young adult list. She, Wieber and Fierce Five teammates Aly Raisman and McKayla Maroney recently wrapped up a 40-city gymnastics tour. She met President Barack Obama last month with the rest of the Fierce Five, and left the White House with a souvenir.
“We got a sugar cookie that they were making for the holidays,” Douglas said. “I took a picture of it.”
Though her busy schedule hasn’t left time to train, Douglas insists she still intends to compete through the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in 2016.
No female Olympic champion has gone on to compete at the next Summer Games since Nadia Comaneci. But Douglas is still a relative newcomer to the elite scene — she’d done all of four international events before the Olympics — and Chow has said she hasn’t come close to reaching her full potential. She keeps up with Chow through email and text messages, and plans to return to Iowa after her schedule clears up in the spring.
Of course, plenty of other athletes have said similar things and never made it back to the gym. But Douglas is determined, and she gets giddy just talking about getting a new floor routine.
“I think there’s even higher bars to set,” she said.
Because while being an Olympic champion may have changed her life, it hasn’t changed her.
“I may be meeting cool celebrities and I’m getting amazing opportunities,” she said. “But I’m still the same Gabby.”
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