How Gabby Douglas Made History At The London Olympics
Overcoming obstacles (and her own self-doubt), 4'11' dynamo Gabby Douglas soared to victory, charmed the world, and made Olympic history in London by becoming the first African-American to clinch gold in women's all-around gymnastics and the only woman to do so the same year as winning a team gold. "I'm so excited," 16-year-old Douglas gushed as she prepped for a PEOPLE cover photo shoot, featured in this week's issue.
Gabby Douglas remembers the day her Olympic dreams nearly crumbled. It was seven months ago, during one of her mom's visits to Iowa, and she was ready to pack it in. It had been more than a year since she'd moved 1,200 miles from the East Coast to corn country, 16 long months since she'd hugged her dogs or smelled the sea back at home in Virginia Beach, Virginia. She was tired and full of doubt and just plain over it. "I wanted to go home with my mom," she tells PEOPLE. "But she told me to keep fighting."
Desperately homesick at first, "I would bawl in my bed," she says. Travis Parton of the Des Moines Partons – the family that volunteered to house an out-of-town student for famous trainer Liang Chow – took Douglas under his wing, treating her to movie nights and teaching her, when it came time, how to drive. "She's our fifth daughter," says Travis, 35, who runs a home-maintenance company with wife Missy and whose gymnast daughter, Leah, 8, also trains with Chow and idolizes Douglas. "Birthdays, Christmas, everything. She's in the family photos." Except, of course, she is the only African-American in the picture – a fact Douglas shrugs off. "People say, 'They're white and you're black,'" she says. "But Travis is like a dad to me."
Gabby's own father, Timothy Douglas, is an Air Force staff sergeant from whom her mother, Natalie Hawkins, split in 2007. "I didn't really have a dad. He was always in Afghanistan or Iraq, so we didn't see him very often," says Douglas. In June, when Sgt. Douglas returned from Afghanistan and surprised her at Olympic trials, she appeared happy to see him but says that she hasn't seen him since then, and they speak only "rarely."
Despite the happy outcome in London, Douglas's move to Iowa was a huge leap for the teenager, who started gymnastics at age 6 after her sister, Arielle, 23, convinced her mom to enroll the boundlessly energetic baby of the family in classes. "I was sick about that decision," says Hawkins, 42, of sending her daughter away. The day they said goodbye, Hawkins wept, and it was Gabby who offered comfort. "She said, 'I'm going to miss you so much, but you told me sometimes in life we have to sacrifice for the things we really want."
Douglas tells PEOPLE, "You have hard days in the gym and ask, 'Is this really worth it?' And when you're standing on the podium, you say, 'Wow, this really was.'" For Gabby Douglas, who hopes to defend her title in Rio in 2016, the only challenge tougher than defying gravity over the uneven bars may be slowing down enough to soak in this magical time. But, as with everything else, she's determined to do that, too. "I made history," she says. "It's an awesome feeling, and I have to seize the moment. But first I'm going back to Virginia Beach – haven't been in almost two years. I just want to visit my dogs, relax and enjoy."
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