PITTSBURGH – Gabby Douglas can’t describe it exactly. It just kind of happened.
At some point over the winter while the defending women’s gymnastics Olympic all-around champion hung out with her family in Los Angeles, something clicked.
Rested and healthy following an 18-month sabbatical – if crisscrossing the country and the world as the face of your sport can be called a sabbatical – a familiar feeling returned.
“I just figured it was time to go back,” she said.
Back to the sanity of Iowa. Back to coach Liang Chow. Back to the gym. Back to chase history.
No woman has ever successfully defended her Olympic all-around title since 1968.
More than two years out from the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro, Douglas’ comeback is already well underway. It even has a possible target date: the 2014 U.S. Nationals in Pittsburgh later this summer.
The 18-year-old told the Associated Press Monday she hopes to compete in the all-around title at nationals – where Douglas could face current world all-around champion and good friend Simone Biles – to help her get set for the world championships in China this fall.
“I’m going to be so nervous,” Douglas said with a laugh.
Maybe, but not scared.
Despite feeling as if she was “starting from scratch” when she went back to work with Chow in April, Douglas isn’t exactly taking things slow.
She’s training six days a week and for proof of how serious she is, look no further than her wrists, which are currently several different shades of blue thanks to a series of battles with the uneven bars.
Pressed on why she’s attempting something that hasn’t been done since Vera Caslavska of Czechoslovakia did it in 1964 and 1968 and Douglas just shrugged her remarkably muscled shoulders.
“I like what I do,” she said. “I think my life is better when I just go do it. You can’t be worried about ‘What if this happens? What if that happens?”
Douglas estimates she’s at “80 percent” physically compared to where she was while winning the all-around in London on Aug. 2, 2012.
It’s remarkable she considers the gap so small. Making Olympic history and trying to remaining competitive in gymnastics are not two things that walk hand-in-hand.
She admits she wasn’t prepared for the deluge that followed the two golds she brought home, one for the all-around and the other while helping the “Fierce Five” to the team title. She thought she could go to dinner in public. She thought she could take a little break and head back to the gym.
She thought wrong.
In addition to a slew of endorsements – including Nike and AT&T among others – and personal appearances, Douglas might be one of the youngest people in the world with their life story already made into a movie. She has her own line of leotards and a seemingly unending string of requests for her time.
It took her awhile, but she’s found the strength to say no sometimes. It’s the only way this will work.
Less than two years removed from London, the next wave of gymnasts with their own plans for Rio are starting to catch the eye of U.S. national team coordinator Martha Karolyi.
When Douglas attended a U.S. team camp in Texas last month, she found herself looking and realized she wasn’t one of the new kids.
The only fellow member of the “Fierce Five” in attendance was Kyla Ross. McKayla Maroney is recovering from leg problems. Aly Raisman is back in training but has no timetable for a return to competition. Jordyn Wieber is all but retired.
Yet here Douglas is, hoping for an extended stay with the national team. Her rise was so meteoric in the run-up to London her experience on the world stage is limited.
She was an uneven bars specialist on the 2011 gold medal-winning U.S. world championship team and a surprise pick to join Wieber at the 2012 American Cup before the Olympics. Douglas, competing as an alternate, actually edged Wieber on that chilly day in New York City.
The victory was the confidence builder she needed. By the time Douglas arrived in London, she was peaking.
Doing it again will be daunting. Douglas even let out a sigh and said “it seems so far away” with a smile while talking about the prospect of standing atop the podium in Rio.
She watched some of her heroes – including 2008 Olympic champ Nastia Liukin and four-time Olympic medialist Shawn Johnson – come up short in their bids to make another Olympic team.
Douglas knows she’s not immune, that disaster is one misstep away. She also doesn’t care. She’s still the same kid who brazenly told her mother while watching the 2008 Olympics on TV she wanted to go to Iowa and be taught by Chow.
She still loves going to the gym, even if she does it in a Mercedes (a gift) these days. She still catches herself watching highlights of her golden run in London on YouTube, nitpicking everything she did wrong.
Sorry, it’s a habit.
It’s why she’s not putting any limitations on her second act. She knows people will wonder if she can match all the things she did the first time around. She doesn’t understand why she’s not allowed to surpass them.
“Who knows what I’m working on,” she said, smiling. “Who knows?”