By John Powers
The parallels may be coincidental but for Gabby Douglas another Olympic year brings with it a palpable feeling of deja vu. A star-spangled teammate is world champion, the trials will be back in San Jose and the ‘Flying Squirrel’ is back at the AT&T American Cup where she made a substantial, if unofficial, splash four years ago.
"It’s, oh my gosh, it’s like 2012 all over again," the 20-year-old Douglas said today in Newark as she prepared to take on teammate Maggie Nichols and rivals from four continents on Saturday afternoon at Prudential Center in the year’s first major international competition.
This time Douglas comes back as the Olympic champion with the rare distinction of having earned an all-around medal at a subsequent world meet. "I was just like yes, I’m back, baby, I am," said Douglas, who took the silver behind Simone Biles in addition to a team gold. "It was really important for me to show that I am back. I just wanted to prove to myself that I can do this and I have the ability to do it again."
Merely making it back to Olympus will be an arduous road. Douglas and team captain Aly Raisman are the only members of the ‘Fierce Five’ from London who are attempting a reprise. "They know it’s not easy," said national team coordinator Martha Karolyi. "They know what it takes to become a champion. They totally know. Just because you have a title it will not be any different this time around."
Douglas not only didn’t have a title when she participated in the 2012 AT&T American Cup at Madison Square Garden, as an alternate she wasn’t an official entrant. But when she posted the day’s best score it gave her the confidence that she could hold her own with the world’s best. "This was like the start of my career," said Douglas. "It clicked in my head, hey, I actually do have a shot of making the Olympic team."
It wasn’t that she hadn’t been on the global stage before. Douglas had collected a team gold in 2011 alongside all-around champion Jordyn Wieber and vault titlist McKayla Maroney. But her American Cup performance gave her credibility as an all-arounder. "Gabby proved at that time that, yes, she is able to compete with confidence and consistency, which is a necessity besides strong skills," said Karolyi.
Her Olympic triumph proved that Douglas could handle the heat and the glare that come with the planetary podium. "I’ve heard a lot of people say when the lights are on, she’s all in it," Douglas said. "I’m all in it regardless. Though I may make a lot mistakes in practice, in competition I just want to give a good show. The crowd definitely boosts me up. I’m like, I just want to do my best right now."
While Douglas concedes that ‘the whole comeback thing was a little challenging’, the benefits of already having been through a full Olympic cycle are undeniable. "The experience counts," she said. "You know what you have to do and what not to do. Pacing myself. Knowing the drill and knowing the procedure."
What Douglas also knows is that a gold medal minted in 2012 brings her no guaranteed ticket for 2016. That’s how the U.S. program works. "When it’s selection, everybody knows it’s what you can perform now," said Karolyi. "That’s the only criteria. It’s not the name that you are or the reigning world or Olympic champion but who is prepared and ready to represent us in the best condition."
That’s why Douglas, who hasn’t competed since the World Championships, was tapped for the American Cup. "I thought we need to give a nice little push for her to work," said Karolyi. "She sometimes needs a very good incentive to train hard. She knows that. And a competition is a great incentive because you do not want to go out there and look bad. That’s one of the reasons why we planned her earlier in the season."
The Olympics still are five months away and the road to Rio only becomes more demanding. So for now the reigning champion is deflecting questions about how she’ll do when she gets there. "For me, I like to deal with pressure on the day," Douglas said. "I just take one step at a time. I say to myself, the Olympics will come. I’ll cross that big bridge when I come to it."