(Reuters) - When Gabby Douglas arrived at the London Olympics all she wanted to do was meet Usain Bolt.
But after the 16-year-old American added the Olympic all-round title to her gymnastics team gold on Thursday, it might be the world’s fastest man seeking a meeting with her.
Dressed in a shimmering pink leotard, Douglas dazzled a packed North Greenwich Arena with her cheeky personality and a jaw-dropping exhibition of high-flying acrobatics that heralded the arrival of the London Games newest sensation.
By the time Douglas was wrapping up her evening with a floor routine, the gymnast nicknamed the “Flying Squirrel” had the massive crowd on its feet and eating out of her hand, finishing with a playful wave before diving into the arms of her coach Liang Chow.
”It just feels amazing to be called the Olympic champion, so much hard work, effort and passion and determination in the gym,“ Douglas told reporters after claiming gymnastics biggest prize. ”You have to push it every day. It definitely feels amazing.
“The all-around matters to me. People keep saying I‘m the first black American to win the gold medal and I‘m so honoured.”
Armed with cute nickname, a megawatt smile, a compelling back-story and two gold medals with maybe more to come in apparatus finals, it is certain fame and fortune await the teenager when she returns home to the United States.
The subject of a pre-Games article in Time magazine, Douglas shared the cover of Sports Illustrated’s Olympic edition with her “Fierce Five” team mates but the first African-American to wear the all-round crown looks ready to emerge from the Games as a marketing dynamo.
From Olga Korbut in 1972 and Nadia Comaneci in 1976 to Nastia Liukin four years ago in Beijing, each Summer Games seems to introduce a new precocious talent, an irresistible charmer who commands the Olympic spotlight leaving spectators spellbound by their gravity-defying antics.
“I didn’t realise that,” said Douglas when asked about the endorsements and opportunities waiting for her. “I just wanted to seize the moment, you have to learn to seize the moment so it kind of hasn’t sunk in yet.”
Seizing the moment will also be on the minds of the men and women who will market Douglas as they try to capitalise on the fame that can be fleeting in the sport of women’s gymnastics.
Four years ago, Liukin, Shawn Johnson and Alicia Sacramone were the anchors of the U.S. team. When they all failed to earn a spot in the London squad, their moment in the limelight was gone.
While it may seem so, Douglas did not just appear out of thin air to take her place as America’s Olympic sweetheart.
Her dream like most was born out of a childhood fascination then fashioned into reality by years of numbing training in gyms, some far away from her Virginia Beach home.
Just 14-years-old but determined to be the best gymnast she could be, Douglas convinced her mother to let her move to train with Chow, a coach she felt an instant connection with after watching his interaction with U.S. gymnasts at the Beijing Olympics on television.
“I thought it was possible (to make the Olympic team) but when you look back now, it’s like Wow, anything is possible,” When I moved to Iowa it was a lot of sacrifices but they all paid off.
”It was definitely a new kind of experience for me. I moved to Iowa my mom stayed with me in a hotel for a week and then she left and I moved in with a host family.
“It was definitely different.”
When Chow met Douglas, he did not think she would survive in Iowa.
Dealing with bouts of homesickness and inconsistent performances it seemed as if Douglas might never earn her place among the gymnastic elite.
But in the space of exactly five months, Douglas has upset the gymnastics order at home and abroad. Allowed to compete unofficially at the American Cup in March, she outscored all the established women. In the U.S. trials last month, she pipped world all-around champion Jordyn Wieber to top spot for London.
”It is unusual, she really charged up and made a fantastic improvement, I don’t recall anybody this quickly rising from an average good gymnast to a fantastic one,“ said U.S. women’s team co-coordinator Marta Karolyi. ”Every single competition she did better and better, we had to work with her consistency.
”I am so happy for Gabby, she is so much a nice girl, hardworking and dedicated. She proved that by moving away from home just to seek higher quality coaching.
”It takes a lot of suffering and hardship until you climb to the top. It depends on your character how you take those times and being put down makes you even hungrier.
“She just loves gymnastics and she really loves to be on the top.”
Editing by Pritha Sarkar