'Flying Squirrel' soars, heads for London Games

July 2, 2012 - 5:10 AM
APTOPIX Olympic Trials Gymnastics

Gabby Douglas competes on the uneven bars during the final round of the women's Olympic gymnastics trials, Sunday, July 1, 2012, in San Jose, Calif. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) — Now that she's on her way to the Olympics, Gabby Douglas has a new goal.

"I'm hoping I can catch an accent," she said. "I've always wanted an accent."

Look out London. The 16-year-old whose "Flying Squirrel" nickname might be the only thing more appealing than her personality or her high-flying uneven bars routine is ready to take on a new continent after upsetting world champion Jordyn Wieber to win the Olympic trials Sunday night.

Oh, she's bringing friends, too. 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.

"This is a very strong team. I feel this team is even stronger than four years ago," said Douglas' coach, Liang Chow.

Considering that 2008 squad had Nastia Liukin, Shawn Johnson and Alicia Sacramone, that's a pretty bold statement. After seeing Douglas' stunning ascension over the last six months, however, no one should bet against her and the Americans.

"You want to peak at the right time," Douglas said. "And also still be awesome and great."

Douglas convinced her mother to let her leave her hometown of Virginia Beach, Va., almost two years ago to move to Iowa and train with Chow, Johnson's coach. Though she was a member of that world team, few would have ever guessed that she, rather than Russia's Aliya Mustafina or Viktoria Komova, would present the biggest challenge to Wieber.

But she raised eyebrows at the American Cup in March by beating Wieber. Never mind that her scores didn't count because she was competing as an alternate. She came up just short at nationals last month, and again the first night of trials.

On Sunday night, however, Douglas would not be denied again.

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 U.S. women's team coordinator 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 it meant Douglas needed to score only a 15.25 or better on floor exercise to win.

With a show worthy of Vegas, Douglas had the crowd rocking and rolling to her techno music. Basketball players would be envious of the hops she got on her tumbling runs, yet she landed them with such security there's got to be some glue somewhere on those feet. She pranced across the floor as if she owned the place, and never once stopped smiling.

"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."

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.

"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."

While Douglas is clearly a star on the rise, Liukin is exiting the stage — this time for good.

Hampered by shoulder problems and a clock that wouldn't stop ticking, Liukin never returned to the form that made her the 2008 Olympic champion. 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.

But she refused to quit, and the crowd gave her a standing ovation. She finished off her career with a respectable routine on balance beam. As she walked off the podium, her father and coach, Valeri, greeted her with a kiss and fans began to stand once again.

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."

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