What would you do to follow your dreams? What kind of sacrifices would you make? Would you leave behind everything you know -- including your parents' home at the age of 14?
When Gabby Douglas was 3 years old, her older sister, Arielle, taught her to do a simple cartwheel. From there, Gabby began to improvise, moving on to a one-handed cartwheel and eventually a cartwheel with no hands -- an aerial. The girl had talent. But what did that mean?
"I spent many years with my daughter saying, 'She's really good. You have to get her in gymnastics,'" says Gabby's mother, Natalie. "So I decided to let her take a recreational class just to let her whip off some of her energy. I had no clue we’d end up where we’re at now."
Things happened fast. After only one trial class, the owner of the gym placed Gabby in the Talented Opportunity Program, also known as TOPs -- a program affiliated with USA Gymnastics for young girls. That initial challenge and boost of confidence set Gabby's career in motion. During her first year, Gabby worked specifically on strength and building the muscle and energy to compete at a higher level.
In the fall of 2003, at the age of 8, Gabby began competing, and shortly after, she moved to Excalibur Gymnastics, a more competitive and training-focused facility. There, her time commitment and practice routine increased significantly, which meant changes in other aspects of her life as well.
"I went to public school until third grade," Gabby says, "and then when I switched over to Excalibur they had a home schooling program that I joined because I trained so much when I was little. I was always at the gym."
She kept getting better. This was not a fluke. Gabby's consistent top finishes in the Virginia State Championships were only stepping-stones to her long-term dream of the Olympics.
"I was watching the Olympics in 2004 and Carly Patterson was on bars doing giants and I said to my mom, 'Look, I'm learning that and I can do that and I’m gonna be there some day,'" Gabby says.
But with success came tension and pressure. Gabby wanted to try new things, expand her horizons, and move on to the next level. But her coaches were fighting over who got to take her to camp, who would coach her and what skills she was ready to perform. It soon became too much for Gabby to handle.
"It got out of control," she says. "I thought, 'This is really unstable and I don't know if I can focus.'"
Just as the stress and pressure was taking its toll on Gabby, an opportunity presented itself: She had the chance to work with gymnastics coach and international medalist Liang Chow at a camp hosted by her gym. In the short amount of time she spent training with Chow, Gabby was able to successfully land a two-and-a-half vault -- a feat she had not previously been able to accomplish.
"He was so caring and loving and he taught me this skill that no one ever taught me," Gabby says. "So I was like, 'Wow, I want to be with this coach who can teach me a lot of skills and just be at the top.'"
Gabby wanted to make the Olympic team, and she believed she could realize that dream by working with Chow. The only issue was that if Gabby wanted to pursue such an extreme move, she would have to do it on her own. For Gabby's family, relocating to Des Moines was not an option, so Gabby had to decide whether or not following her dream was worth leaving her family behind. She was only 14.
"She kept saying, 'Mom I think I need this and I need coaches I can trust and they trust me and we can go together," Natalie says. "I thought if she was gong to push through it and go far then she needed to have a peaceful and trusting relationship that you need in that sport."
After pleading with her mother and with the encouragement of her siblings, Gabby made the decision to leave her home of Virginia Beach, Va., to travel nearly 1,000 miles to Des Moines, Iowa, to work with Chow.
In October of 2010, Gabby made the move to Iowa. She moved in with a host family, the Partons, who had a daughter training at Chow's gym. The Partons knew Chow would draw top gymnasts to Iowa after taking gold medalist Shawn Johnson to the Olympics in 2008, and they expressed their interest in opening their home to a gymnast if necessary. "It didn't seem like a difficult decision," says Missy Parton. "Travis and I had kind of felt like this was something we were meant to do."
At first, the adjustment for Gabby was difficult. The line between a family she was temporarily staying with and a family she could actually see herself being a part of was difficult to distinguish.
"I've noticed over the last few months, she's allowed us, and we're to the point of being comfortable, where we can parent her more than what we would have in the beginning," Missy says. "We told her from the beginning that that was our goal, to treat her as our own. And on both sides of that -- when it comes to the love and affection and encouragement that she needs as well as the discipline and the boundaries and things like that."
In the gym, Gabby almost immediately began to show significant signs of improvement. By 2011, less than a year after she transferred to Iowa, Gabby qualified for the Senior National Championship, earned a spot on the 2011-2012 Senior National team after winning the Bronze Medal on the Uneven Bars at nationals, and was later was selected to compete with the 2011 World Championship team.
In October, Gabby showcased her new skills at her biggest competition yet -- the Gymnastics World Championship in Tokyo, Japan. Her fifth place finish on the bars helped push Team USA forward to win the championship title.
That was only her third international event.
"She was always on a track to compete at Worlds and the Olympics," says Natalie. "And by her making the World team, that just made that dream of making it to the Olympics that much more real. It put her in the position for people at USA Gymnastics to say that she’s going to vie for a spot."
Now, with less than six months leading up to the Olympic Trials at the end of June, Gabby's focus is on staying healthy, staying consistent and competing well at the few competitions that stand between her and the Olympic Trials. The team is very deep, with Nastia Liukin, Shawn Johnson, Chellsie Memmel, Bridget Sloan and Rebecca Bross. But Douglas only seems to get better by the week.
She's come a long way, and now Douglas looks poised to go much farther.
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