While Gabby Douglas has been preparing to capture American hearts in the London Olympics, her father has been serving in the Air Force.
The 4-foot-11, 16-year-old gymnast nicknamed the “Flying Squirrel” made history Thursday when she won the gold medal in the women’s all-around competition. Her father, Air Force Staff Sgt. Timothy Douglas, who has served multiple deployments throughout her childhood, was in London, just not in the crowd. But he first saw in June what the world has witnessed this week in his talented and charismatic daughter.
“There’s an exuberance,” Douglas told the Des Moines Register in late June, after surprising his daughter at the Olympic Trials in San Jose. “There’s a feeling that you can’t describe.”
For much of the last several years, Douglas, who has done three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, has made do with YouTube videos of his daughter’s routines as he served with the 203rd Red Horse civil engineering squadron, either in Virginia Beach or in Kandahar. Although his last tour ended in October of 2011, when he showed up to see her qualify for the U.S. Olympic team, it was one of the rare times he has seen Gabby compete in person.
Gabby, who began training at age six, was just nine when her father was first called up. Two years ago, she moved from her family in Virginia Beach to live with a sponsoring family in Des Moines, Iowa, where she trained with Liang Chow, who previously coached Shawn Johnson, the 2008 Olympic silver medalist. But the girl who did perfect cartwheels at age 3 says praying for her father’s safety has been a regular part of her life, almost like her training regimen.
"I just had to pray to God just to keep him safe and tell the angels to keep my dad safe and come home," she told NBC.
On Thursday, Gabby tallied 62.232 points to win the all-around gold medal, besting Russian Viktoria Komova, who scored 61.973 points to win the silver. Earlier in the games, Douglas played a major role in helping Team USA clinch its first team gold medal in women's gymnastics since the 1996 games in Atlanta.
Unable to get tickets to the event, Sgt. Douglas watched the event on television with his parents and brother, a spokesman with the Virginia National Guard told FoxNews.com.
Even if Sgt. Douglas couldn’t see Gabby win the gold in person, the surprise visit to the trials, which marked the first time he’d seen her in nearly two years, resulted in a joyful reunion. Douglas held up an American flag with "Go Gabby Douglas, Love, Dad" on the front and his daughter had no idea he was in the crowd.
"I'm like, 'Who's calling my name?' And then I look up,” she told the Des Moines Register. “It was my dad and his friend, and I haven't seen him in a while," Gabby said later. "They were holding up the flag. And I almost felt like bawling. I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, Dad!"
"I just missed her so much," Timothy Douglas told the paper. "It's just so thrilling what's going on."
Douglas’ mother, Natalie Hawkins, is in the process of divorcing Timothy Douglas. But both parents have supported the plucky superstar, helping to pay for her training and travel.
"I'm so happy for her, so thrilled," Hawkins told reporters in London after her daughter’s second gold performance. "I love her and I'm so proud of her."
As her father no doubt watched from afar and Gabby took her place atop the podium, her own feelings of national pride were stoked.
"That was awesome, seeing the flag raised and you're on top and the national anthem just playing," Douglas told reporters. "You feel like you’re in a concert. All these flashes ... I'm living on Cloud Nine."