COLUMBUS (AP) — Gabby Douglas is exasperated. Again and again and again the defending women’s Olympic all-around champion emphatically slaps her right hand on one of the picnic tables that sit just past the front desk at Buckeye Gymnastics, the latest home in her nomadic career.
The 19-year-old isn’t angry, exactly. She’s just over the skepticism surrounding a “comeback” she insists isn’t a comeback at all.
“I took a break,” Douglas says between laughs, pounding on that poor table one more time. “It’s not like I retired for 30 years. I mean, come on. I’m still young. I’m still fresh.”
Competing in next year’s Olympics in Rio de Janiero was always part of her plan. The day after she made history in London as the first African-American to reach the top of her sport with a showstopping performance at the 2012 Games, Douglas and then-coach Liang Chow talked about celebrating again four years later.
She just didn’t imagine trying to become the first woman to repeat in nearly 50 years like this: in a new gym with a new coach, sky-high expectations and a reality film crew from the Oxygen Network on hand to capture it all.
With about a year to go until the flame is lit, Douglas will compete in the U.S. for the first time since the 2012 Olympic Trials on Saturday when she takes the floor for the Secret Classic in Chicago.
It will be an unveiling for Gabby Douglas 2.0: the older, wiser and decidedly more jacked version of the girl with the killer routines and the kilowatt smile who won over the world and an avalanche of sponsors on that brilliant August day three years ago.
On the surface, this weekend is a tuneup for the national championships next month. Beneath, however, is a quest to silence the doubt that surrounds Douglas’ bid to become the first repeat Olympic all-around gold medalist since Vera Caslavska of Czechoslovakia in 1968.
“When people say I can’t do something, I love it,” Douglas said. “I just say, ‘all right, let’s go. Let’s get it.’ I’m more confident. More courageous. More warrior-minded.”
Douglas will need to rely on that mentality heavily if she wants to soar to heights even the all-time greats — from Nadia Comaneci to Mary Lou Retton to Nastia Liukin — never reached.
All three Olympic champions tried to extend their careers following their golden moment. Comaneci came the closest to adding a second all-around gold, earning silver in Moscow in 1980. Retton retired barely a year after her triumph at Los Angeles in 1984. Liukin’s late bid for a spot on the 2012 team ended when her throbbing shoulders finally said “enough” during Trials.
For all its beauty and eye-popping athleticism, gymnastics is really about the grind. The supernova Douglas became in London was chiseled during nearly a decade of a relentless and sometimes mind-numbing routine, one she blissfully hit pause on after stepping off the podium with gold draped around her neck.
There was the post-Olympic tour. The book. The biography that turned into a made-for-TV movie. A steady stream of appearances and speaking engagements. The perks that come with glory are also among the biggest obstacles to recapturing it.
“You feel like you have to choose,” Liukin said. “Are you going to take advantage of these opportunities or are you going to train?”
Douglas has remained pragmatic even if the plan she mapped out after London took a few unexpected turns. She left Chow’s gym in Iowa to reunite with her family in Los Angeles in 2013. Barely six months later Douglas was back with Chow to begin the process of prepping for Rio only to leave abruptly last summer in search of a fresh start.
One problem: she couldn’t find a new coach. Her mother, Natalie Hawkins, stresses the issue wasn’t personal but practical. For all of Douglas’ talent, taking her in also comes with inherent risk. Everything she does going forward will be judged against what she accomplished during that giddy night on Aug. 2, 2012.
The bar is set ridiculously high. So is the pressure to clear it.
Her next chapter is beginning at a thriving if modest converted warehouse in a north Columbus suburb. Linked with longtime Buckeye Gymnastics coach Kittia Carpenter through a mutual acquaintance, Douglas arrived last summer for a two-week tryout that turned into something more permanent.
She’s different than the girl everyone watched three years ago. She’s grown nearly 3 inches and push-upped her way to the kind of arm definition that could best be described as “Serena Williams-lite.”
After the initial “oh my gosh, is that Gabby Douglas?” gapes that seemed to follow her arrival at Buckeye, Douglas soon settled into a new rhythm with Carpenter, who has spent more than 30 years as an athlete, coach and judge. Carpenter worried she was getting a diva. The concerns soon evaporated.
“There was never really a question on whether she was serious,” Carpenter said. “It just seemed so natural.”
It certainly looks that way. Douglas returned to competition in March, when she placed fourth at the Jesolo Cup in Italy behind three other Americans, including Olympic teammate Aly Raisman and two-time world champion Simone Biles. In a way it was the perfect start, understated but promising.
So the process continues in somewhat blessed anonymity. While Douglas worked through a world-class beam routine last week, a group of beginners finishing up gymnastics camp ignored her completely. It’s just Gabby being Gabby, drilling through another six-hour day at the end of another six-day week on the path to another Olympics.
And that, Douglas insists, is why she’s doing this. Not for the money. Not to extend her time in the spotlight.
Douglas doesn’t expect to be the same girl who flew so effortlessly in London. She’s different. Gymnastics is different. Biles, a good friend, is now the best on the planet. But a lot can happen in 13 months.
“The pressure is on, and I love pressure,” Douglas said. “It makes diamonds.”
And maybe — just maybe — gold.