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, Va. She was tired and full of doubt and just plain over it. “I wanted to go home with my mom,” she says. “But she told me to keep fighting.”
Talk about a mother’s instinct. On Aug. 2, with mom Natalie Hawkins watching in the stands, Douglas, 16, vaulted, tumbled and flew her way into Olympic history 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. She joins an exclusive club of three other American champs-Mary Lou Retton in ’84, Carly Patterson in ’04 and Nastia Liukin in ’08-and experts say she stands to make millions in endorsements (first stop: Kellogg’s Cornflakes box). But gushing over her makeup as she prepped for a photo shoot with PEOPLE Aug. 5, she was a typical teen. “Oh my goodness, I love it!” she says. “I’m so excited.”
Is she ever anything less? Beyond her ballerina’s grace and aerialist’s derring-do, Douglas’s sheer enthusiasm for, well, just about everything makes her instantly endearing. Each question elicits a quick response coupled with that infectious smile. Favorite musical artists? “I have a playlist-a little Lil Wayne, a little country-Carrie Underwood or Taylor Swift.” Favorite celebrity tweet on her triumph? “Nicki Minaj. She said ‘Kisses to Gabby.’ I love her.” Last movie seen? “The Avengers. It’s awesome. I saw it three times. I saw it with my host dad Travis.”
That would be Travis Parton of the Des Moines Partons-the family that made a 14-year-old Douglas one of their own so she could take the next step toward fulfilling her dream: training with the famous Liang Chow, who had guided Shawn Johnson to glory in ’08. (They had volunteered to house an out-of-town student for Chow; only later did they find out it would be Gabby.) Desperately homesick at first, “I would bawl in my bed,” Douglas says. Seeing her pain, Travis took her 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 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 their mom to enroll the boundlessly energetic baby of the family in classes.
It was an even bigger stretch for Hawkins, a debt-recovery specialist for HSBC and single mom raising four kids. “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.'”
And now all the sacrifice has paid off. For 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.”
These Olympians are at the top of their game, with hot bods to boot
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Nathan Adrian, 23, swimming
Alex Morgan, 23, soccer
Ryan Lochte, 28, swimming
Cullen Jones, 28, swimming
Lolo Jones, 30, track & field
Leryn Franco, 30, track & field, Team Paraguay
These athletes showed the world the true meaning of Olympic spirit
Since the 17-year-old swimmer from Centennial, Colo., nabbed her four golds and a bronze, her dad’s received hundreds of e-mails thanking her for “bringing a little sunshine” to the state. “I’m so excited to go back,” says Franklin, but not because she expects a hero’s welcome: “I just want to see my puppy Ruger!”
The fastest man on Earth
A teammate beat him at the Jamaican Olympic trials, but the 25-year-old they call Lightning lived up to his name in London, winning gold in the 100 meters just as he had in Beijing in ’08. “I want to become a legend,” he said. He’s already there.
The comeback mom
After coming out of retirement in 2011, the Boise, Idaho, mom trained by cycling up to 500 miles a week. It paid off: She reprised her ’08 gold in the time trial, becoming, at 38, the oldest female cyclist to do so. As she had dreamed, her son shared the moment. “Having Lucas in my arms on the podium,” says Armstrong, “was motivation for me.”
The first double amputee to compete in the games, South Africa’s Pistorius, 25, was hailed as a winner despite his last-place finish in the 400-meter track semifinals. Rio ’16, here he comes!
Team WillKat Nails It!
When it comes to being royal superfans, William and Kate are the undefeated champions
Visiting Team GB, Athletes’ Village, July 31
She might have been pressing the flesh but, always fashion-savvy, Kate (left, with heptathlon gold medalist Jessica Ennis) let her feet do the talking. Her Russell & Bromley navy wedges earned gushing praise from British athletes. Says a Palace source: “They’re tremendously proud of all the athletes and everything they’ve achieved.”
Greeting the Torch, Buckingham Palace, July 26
Looking sporty and relaxed as millions watched, Will and Kate showed their athletic prowess earlier in the day when Will kicked around a soccer ball and Kate tried her hand at table tennis. Along with Prince Harry, they launched a youth-sports charity as well.
Tennis (top), Aug. 2; Water Polo, July 31
Gasp. Gulp. Groan. Stiff upper lip? Not so much. Will and Kate discarded British stoicism in favor of good old-fashioned feeling. Says an observer: “They’ve been going through all the emotions.”
Track Cycling, Velodrome, Aug. 2
When their enthusiasm for British cycling pushed the couple’s PDA to a new level of huggability, Will feared the kisscam would catch them in the act. “I was absolutely dreading they were going to come,” he said.
SCORE Perfect 10.0
DOING THE ‘WAVE’
Track Cycling, Velodrome, Aug. 2
Sure, they’ve had lots of practice perfecting the royal wave, but along with Prince Harry, the always-proper couple showed their Team GB spirit like any pair of bleachers fans. Says an observer: “They’ve thrown themselves into every event.”