SAN JOSE, Calif. – Long called an underdog, Gabby Douglas likes her new label a whole lot more.
The 16-year-old with the spectacular uneven bars routine and personality to spare beat Jordyn Wieber for the first time Sunday night, winning the Olympic trials and the lone guaranteed spot for the London Games.
"Everyone was telling me you have this great potential and you can be on top," Douglas said. "I didn't believe that, but everyone was just telling me to believe in myself. I did and I'm kind of up on top and it's amazing."
The only thing more amazing would be to end up on top in London, the rest of her teammates beside her.
Led by the 1-2 punch of Douglas and Wieber, this will be the strongest team the Americans have had since 1996, one that will be not just favored but expected to bring home only the second Olympic team gold. McKayla Maroney and Aly Raisman, who were with Douglas and Wieber on the U.S. team that won the title at last fall's world championships, also made the team, as did Kyla Ross.
Maroney is the world vault champion. Ross, not old enough to be on last year's world team, is a two-time U.S. champion.
"I guarantee one thing: The truth is going to come out on the Olympic Games," said Bela Karolyi, whose wife, Martha, is the national team coordinator. "And the truth is that we are solidly the first place team. There's no question about that."
One gymnast who won't be in London, at least not as a competitor, is Olympic champion Nastia Liukin.
Liukin announced her comeback last October, hoping to become the first reigning Olympic champion to return to the games since Nadia Comaneci in 1980. But desire and grit are no match for shoulder problems and a three-year layoff, and Liukin's glittering career sputtered to an end. She fell on uneven bars, her signature event, when her fingertips could only brush the bar after a release move, and needed to take a step back after landing her dismount on the edge of the mat.
The crowd gave her a standing ovation, and she regrouped with a nice balance beam routine. As she walked off the podium, her father and coach, Valeri, greeted her with a kiss and fans began to stand.
Tears filled Liukin's eyes as she waved and said goodbye, to the crowd, her comeback and a career that includes five Olympic medals and four world titles.
"Of course I wanted to go out and put two good performances out there and end my career that way, so it's a little upsetting," Liukin said. "Today is something that I'll remember for the rest of my life. It can easily compare to winning the all-around gold medal to me. Those are pretty much the two highlights of my career ... winning an all-around gold medal and getting a standing ovation not once but twice."
Besides, Liukin leaves knowing the Americans are in great hands.
Wieber has been considered the favorite for Olympic gold since winning the world title last fall, her biggest competition expected to come from Russians Aliya Mustafina and Viktoria Komova.
Turns out, her real rival was right here at home.
Determined to make the Olympics, Douglas left her hometown of Virginia Beach, Va., two years ago to train with Shawn Johnson's coach, Liang Chow, in West Des Moines, Iowa. Douglas served notice of her potential at this year's American Cup, where she actually beat Wieber, though her scores didn't count because she was competing as an alternate. Douglas came up just short at nationals, and again the first night of trials.
On Sunday night, however, Douglas would not be denied again.
Needing to score a 15.25 or better to pass Wieber, Douglas put on a show worthy of Vegas on the floor exercise. Basketball players would be envious of the hops she gets on her tumbling runs, yet she lands them with such security there's got to be some glue somewhere on those feet. She had the crowd rocking and rolling to her techno music, and she wore a grin so bright it could have powered the arena had the lights gone out.
When she finished, Chow greeted her with a bear hug. And that was before they saw her score: a 15.3 that gave her a total of 123.45, just enough to hold off Wieber.
"Winning or not winning at this meet is really secondary," Chow said. "Clearly we saw here that her mental strength and gymnastics strength is coming along."
Only the trials winner was guaranteed a spot in London, and it was clear from the start that Douglas was going to give Wieber a heck of a fight.
She opened with a massive vault, soaring high above the table with her legs pencil-straight and body tightly coiled, and she needed only a small hop to the side to steady herself on her landing. She broke into a big grin as she thrust her hands in the air, and she trotted off the podium with her fists still raised. Her score of 16 — including a huge 9.5 for execution — moved her into first place, a spot she never relinquished.
She extended the lead on uneven bars, her signature event. Douglas is so light and quick as she flies between the bars that Martha Karolyi has dubbed her the "Flying Squirrel," and she gets such great height on her release moves she could have dusted off the Jumbotron. But it is her grace that makes her stand out, looking like a ballerina in a jewelry box as she pirouetted on the high bar. There's some hard-core steel beneath that pretty package, however. On one transition, Douglas' hand seemed to slip on the bar, something that would have made most gymnasts go flying. But she kept right on going, never even hesitating.
When she landed her dismount, the arena responded with a roar that was probably heard in San Francisco. Her score of 15.9 gave her a 1.35-point lead over Wieber with two events left.
But balance beam has been giving Douglas problems all month — a fall the second day of the U.S. championships cost her the title — and Sunday night was no different. She had to windmill her arms to stay upright after a series of back handsprings, and she rocked and swayed for another several seconds after a back somersault. Her score of 14.85 was her lowest of the two-day trials, and cut her lead to 0.6 going into the final rotation — leaving plenty of room for Wieber, who finished on vault, the highest-scoring event.
Wieber didn't get her normal height on vault, however, and landed low, needing to take a step back to steady herself. A minor error, for sure, but every tenth counts when the Olympics are on the line.
"My ultimate goal was definitely to make the team, but I'm a little disappointed", with my performance, Wieber said. "I definitely think it's going to give me more motivation."
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