Gymnast Gabby Douglas A Breakthrough Olympic Star

Gabrielle Douglas has gone from being a little girl who talked her mom into letting her pursue gymnastics to a gold medal Olympian.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

In one short week, Gabby Douglas has become a household name. The American gymnast, 16 years old, took gold yesterday in the individual all-around competition. It's one of the marquee events of the Olympics, and some past winners have been remembered for decades. NPR's Howard Berkes takes us back to the time before Douglas was world-famous.

HOWARD BERKES, BYLINE: Three months ago in Dallas, when U.S. Olympic hopefuls were introduced to reporters, Gabby Douglas stood out. She wasn't caked in heavy makeup and she didn't wear high heels like the gymnastics superstars nearby. She didn't have their podiums or microphones or thick knots of reporters asking about "Dancing With the Stars" and Hollywood careers.

GABBY DOUGLAS GYMNAST: I'm just going to prove to everyone and prove to myself that what I'm capable of doing and just showing the world and just being so happy and being so honored just to do that, just awesome. I just love it.

BERKES: This was before Douglas' Olympic-qualifying performance at U.S. trials in June and two years after a relatively late jump start into elite gymnastics. At 14, Douglas left her mom and siblings in Virginia Beach for full-time training with a skeptical coach in Iowa. Liang Chow was worried there wasn't enough time to coach her into Olympic form.

Still, Douglas settled in with a host family who treated her to fairs and snow cones on breaks from intense workouts.

GYMNAST: I can't stay, like, serious, like, all the time, you know? I just have to just get up and move and - but when it's game time, it's game time. I have to turn off the bubbly and kind of get fierce, like a fierce bubbly, like, okay, I'm going to do this.

(LAUGHTER)

BERKES: The bubbly, fierce or not, belies a difficult road to the Olympics. Her mother says Douglas was homesick and her dad was at war in Afghanistan, his third tour of duty in war zones. Douglas went two years without seeing him. Natalie Hawkins tried to keep her daughter centered and supported even from a distance.

NATALIE HAWKINS: This is her dream, and I'm here to support her in everything that she does. And even though I've shed many tears, I pray that one day they'll be, you know, tears of sweet joy because it will mean that it was all worth it.

BERKES: Listen carefully and you can hear that moment begin. This is Tuesday at the women's team competition final.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHEERING)

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BERKES: This is the floor exercise with Douglas in a bright red leotard, smiling and confident and bouncing around the mat with what seemed like springs for legs. She and her teammates win the first team gold for the U.S. since 1996. Last night, in the individual all-around, she jumped, twisted, flew and flipped. They don't call her the flying squirrel for nothing.

GYMNAST: Yeah, I was definitely - had a, you know, amazing feeling. I was like, okay, just believe. Don't fear, just believe.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHEERING)

BERKES: With her mother, her Iowa host family and two sisters and a brother watching, Douglas leaned down as a second gold medal was draped around her neck.

GYMNAST: I was like, yes, all the hard work has paid off and, oh, it's just - I was speechless. And I was like - tears of joy and just waving to the crowd.

BERKES: Gabby Douglas has two more chances for medals, the uneven bars, Monday, and balance beam, Tuesday. But she's already left an enduring impression at these Olympics. Howard Berkes, NPR News, London.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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