Around this time last year, Gabby Douglas dropped a bomb on her coaches and family: She wanted to quit gymnastics – and maybe try getting a job at Chick-fil-A.
“What,” she says now, “was I thinking?”
Of course, she didn’t. And the rest is history.
Four months after becoming the first black woman ever to win Olympic gold in individual all-around gymnastics, Douglas, 16, is looking back on her magical year – one that includes a new memoir Grace, Gold, & Glory: My Leap of Faith, to be published Dec. 4, and excerpted exclusively in PEOPLE this week.
“My life has changed so much,” says the bubbly former PEOPLE cover girl, who spent the morning before Thanksgiving chilling with her big sister, Arielle, 23, in her sweats and chatting with PEOPLE in her midtown Manhattan hotel. “It’s been really fun.”
Among the highlights: meeting her celebrity crush Ian Somerhalder, appearing on the VMAs and hobnobbing at the White House with the President.
“He was so down to earth,” says Douglas.
These days, with two golds at home – and a bunch of great friends by her side – Douglas admits she has every reason to smile.
At their Manhattan hotel Nov. 20, Douglas and her teammates – who were in town to walk in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade – spent a giggle-filled night playing Twister, eating snacks and watching videos on YouTube, including their fun new take on Psy’s viral “Gangnam Style.”
“They’re like sisters,” says Douglas of her teammates.
Now, before starting training again, Douglas says she’ll be cherishing time at home in Virginia Beach, Va., with the other most important people in her life: mom Natalie Hawkins, 42, brother John, 18, and sisters Arielle and Joyelle, 19.
“I’m so thankful for them,” says Douglas. “I feel so blessed.”