Just a few months ago 16-year-old Gabby Douglas was living in West Des Moines, Iowa, still wondering if her training-based, cross-country move away from her family in Virginia Beach, Va., would ever pay off.
Boy, did it ever.
At the Summer Olympics in London, Douglas became the first African-American woman to win gold in the gymnastics all-around competition, helped Team USA capture another gold in the team all-around and vaulted herself to heroic—and promotional—heights that she admittedly never saw coming.
But when she’s not taking phone calls from the president, doing The Tonight Show With Jay Leno, chatting with Oprah or flipping around onstage to assist newest pal Alicia Keys during an MTV performance, Douglas comes across like any another teenager eager to talk about her favorite meal at McDonald’s.
In advance of the “Flying Squirrel’s” first visit to Las Vegas—Douglas and other members of Team USA will perform at the Kellogg’s Tour of Gymnastics Champions event on Sept. 20 at the Thomas & Mack Center—we caught up with the pint-size superstar.
Where are all your medals right now?
In a safe spot. [Laughs.]
Do you think you’ll take in a Cirque du Soleil show while you’re here?
If I have time and tickets, I would definitely go watch them. I would love to. I have not been to Vegas before. I’ve seen Vegas on TV, and it looks like so much fun, so [this is] kind of my sneak peek.
Explain to those of us who fall off curbs: How in the world are you able to do flips and land perfectly on a 4-inch balance beam?
It takes a lot of practice, but your body just knows what to do. It’s just more mental. You have to just believe and trust yourself that you can do it.
After winning gold in London, what’s the one congratulatory phone call you received that most surprised or touched you?
After the team finals, the president called us, and we all got to talk to him. He just said, “Good job. Congratulations. We’re so proud of you and hope that you can visit the White House soon.” It was so thrilling to talk to him. I was so nervous, because he’s the president. “What if I forget my name, or what if this happens?” But when I was on the phone with him I was just myself, and [it] went good.
Besides the competition, do you have a favorite moment with the Fierce Five in London that stands out?
We’d all go to the cafeteria together, and it was just so amazing because of all the different varieties of food. We were all so shocked, like, “Oh my gosh, the cafeteria is just awesome!”
What’s the one guilty pleasure you had to give up during training, and how soon after competing did you enjoy it?
I really wanted a cinnamon roll after the Olympics, but the first thing I ate was an Egg McMuffin. It was so good.
We hear you have a book coming out as well. Why did you decide to do that?
I’ve always wanted to write a book, [so] people can learn about my background. You’ll get a little more about how things came about from my perspective. I can’t wait for everyone to read it, and I hope people enjoy it and it inspires them.
What was it like to perform with Alicia Keys on the MTV VMAs?
It was amazing, and I was so honored that I got to be onstage with Alicia Keys and Nicki Minaj. They were just phenomenal.
What do you enjoy about performing on this promotional tour?
This is more fun. You try to get the crowd involved. We’re also showing how to do gymnastic skills as well.
What’s the scariest fall you’ve ever experienced, and were you afraid to try that routine again?
I’ve had multiple scary falls, but after a while, you just get used to it because you know your body can take it. You know how to fall. Of course you’re a littlescared to do it the next time because you’re like “OK, what if that happens again?” But you just have to try and see what happens.
More nerve-racking: A balance-beam routine at the Olympics, sitting down with Oprah or leading the Pledge of Allegiance at the Democratic National Convention?
I would have to say leading the Pledge of Allegiance. You overthink it and are like: “What if I forget the words? What if I mess up? What if I trip.” Those kinds of things go through your mind.
What’s it like to become a worldwide phenom virtually overnight?
It’s just been crazy, but I really have been enjoying every single moment. It’s been a long road, but that’s part of the game, part of the training. Everything has been amazing. No words can describe it. It’s just been a whirlwind.