- Jackie MacMullan, ESPNBoston.com columnist
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LONDON -- Olympic all-around gold-medal champion Gabby Douglas couldn't help it: She broke the rules.
Her national team coordinator, Martha Karolyi, previously stressed it was imperative that she did not watch the scoreboard during her individual all-around performance.
"You must focus," Karolyi reminded her sternly. "You must think only of your routine, your performance."
Douglas nodded in agreement, but the free-spirited, springy teenager is, after all, only 16 years old. "I snuck a peek," she confessed.
Yep. That's right. A bona-fide scoreboard-watching violation.
After which rotation?
"The vault," she answered. "And the bars."
She paused for a moment, then broke into a disarming grin that is sure to captivate U.S. fans (and corporate sponsors) for years to come.
"And the beam and the floor."
As Karolyi wagged her finger, scolding the gymnast for such blatant repeated insubordination, Douglas shrugged and exclaimed, "I'm sorry! I just had to see."
What she witnessed was her own meteoric rise from a young, unpredictable, unknown gymnast to a captivating world champion on the biggest stage of her sport.
From the start, Douglas shattered the mold of the uber-intense gymnast who isolates herself in a shrink-wrapped, uniform Olympic bubble. Not Douglas. She was a personality, a bit of a rebel, who laughed often and became easily distracted. She was different, and not just because she is the first African-American to win the individual all-around gold medal.
"I hope I inspire people," she said. "That would be cool."
During her forbidden scoreboard watching Thursday, Douglas actually caught a glimpse of herself on the screen. That moment, she quickly realized, was not the time to ponder her place in U.S. gymnastics history.
"I kind of casually looked up and thought, 'Oh, there I am,'" she said.
While her carefree demeanor is certainly endearing, it was a lack of focus that nearly derailed her Olympic dreams. Asked if he could envision Douglas with a gold medal draped around her neck a year ago, the ever-blunt Bela Karolyi harrumphed, "Of course not. Impossible!" Even her coach Liang Chow, who plucked Douglas from her Virginia Beach home and ensconced her in his Iowa gymnasium, admitted that two years ago he "did not believe this could happen."
The athleticism was never in question. Douglas elevated so effortlessly, her coaches dubbed her the "Flying Squirrel." She had the ability, but, they fretted, did she have the mental tenacity to lock in on the prize and then hold her gaze?
"It's been very tough for me to focus," Douglas confessed. "Focus? 'Oh, there's something shiny.' Focus? 'Oh, there's a butterfly.'"
Martha Karolyi and Chow were demanding tunnel vision during competitions, but instead got a girl who scanned the crowd, waved to friends, took stock of who was clapping for her. The world-class coaches also were dealing with a young woman who still did not believe she was good enough. If it wasn't perfect, Douglas couldn't continue. There were times when she simply doubted whether she belonged alongside her more decorated teammates such as Jordyn Wieber.
At the Visa Championships in June, a mere two months before the Olympic Games, Douglas misstepped on the beam and dismounted instead of forging on.
"We tried to tell her, 'You're a little bit off, that doesn't mean you are in major trouble,'" Karolyi explained. "'You can't panic if you aren't perfect.'"
The process was, at times, painful. Chow said he preferred not to divulge the tactics he used to get his star pupil to concentrate, but it was a struggle, and a race against time. London was coming, and they were hoping Douglas would be ready.
"Really, what it comes down to is, you can't ever doubt yourself," Douglas said. "That's what my coaches kept saying. 'Don't be afraid. You have to go out there and be a beast.'"
Her confidence built as the Games loomed; and when the women's team won the team gold medal earlier in the week, Douglas felt as though something special was unfolding.
Her individual Olympic all-around day began with her beloved vault. Douglas set the tone with a 15.966 score and never really looked back. By the time she reached her final rotation, the floor exercise, she had a comfortable but hardly insurmountable lead over Russia's Viktoria Komova.
Douglas nearly sailed out of bounds on her routine after coming out of her second tumbling pass with too much momentum, which would have been a major deduction. But not only did the Flying Squirrel prevent herself from straying outside the lines, she turned the miscue into a playful, whimsical moment when, with a flourish, she righted herself and smiled at the crowd.
"That was huge, just a huge step," Martha Karolyi said. "That is a difference between a gymnast who is not prepared, who doesn't believe in herself, and one who is an Olympic champion."
Five months ago, Karolyi claims, Douglas was an "average-good gymnast."
"And now," said the beaming matriarch, "she is the best in the world."
With Gabby Douglas' all-around win Thursday, the world witnessed her meteoric rise from a young, unpredictable, unknown gymnast to a captivating world champion on the biggest stage of her sport.