By Stacey Woo and Geoffrey Fowler / New York Times
Gabby Douglas is flying high—and solo.
America’s newest gymnastics icon will be the only American to compete in Monday’s uneven-bar final—and she’ll likely be one of only two gymnasts to perform without a spotter, or someone to catch her if she falls.
Look for her coach, Liang Chow, to stand far to the side as Douglas twirls and soars over the chalk-coated bars. “He’s just, ‘You don’t need me anymore—you got this,’ ” Douglas said. “He knows I can do it.”
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The confidence will help Douglas as she competes for her third gold medal at London, where the 16-year-old already has led the U.S. women to a team victory and became the first African-American to win the individual all-around title.
Douglas said she was starting to fathom the frenzy that awaits her when she returns to the U.S. next week. “It definitely sank in when Nicki Minaj and Lil Wayne were tweeting at me,” she said of the rap stars. “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I am a superstar.’ “
She also is dealing with some of fame’s downside. Her straightened hair has triggered debates on Twitter and other social-media sites, with some women criticizing the style and others calling it unkempt. But the tiff doesn’t seem to bother Douglas.
“What is wrong with my hair? Are you kidding me? I just made history, and you are focusing on my hair?” she said. “Nothing is going to change. I am going to wear my hair like this for bar finals. You might as well get used to it.”
Douglas was the only American to qualify for the uneven-bar finals, after scoring 15.333 to finish sixth on the apparatus in the qualifying round. The favorites in the competition are Britain’s Beth Tweddle, who led qualifiers with a 16.133 score, as well as two gymnasts each from China and Russia.
Besides Douglas and Tweddle, all of Monday’s uneven-bar competitors have used a spotter during the London Games. None of the Americans in Tuesday’s team final had such help. Aly Raisman didn’t use one in Thursday’s all-around final, which her coach, Mihai Brestyan, called a strategy to sharpen her concentration.
“You don’t trust nobody,” Brestyan said. “You trust just in yourself. Sometimes the spotter makes you have half-half decisions because you start the skill and then whatever happens, you don’t pay attention, 100%, to the execution. Then you trust to that person, OK whatever happens to me, I will not fall.”
Spotters, often a male coach, usually scamper underneath gymnasts as they prepare to do aerial moves. Their goal is to at least break the fall of their pupil if she doesn’t catch the bar—if not catch them entirely.
The spotters aren’t perfect. Former Olympic all-around winner Nastia Liukin fell on her face several weeks ago after her father, who is also her coach, didn’t get an arm on her.
“Sometimes the other countries, their spotters don’t even catch them. Even though they fall, he’s still standing there,” said Kyla Ross, one of Douglas’s teammates.
Chow, Douglas’s coach, said he spotted her for the few months it took her to learn her current routine. “But after she mastered everything, why would I want to make her more paranoid?” he said.
He backed off.
“That shows her confidence, that shows my confidence. Plus if I’m standing away, I can see her technique better.”
He said he would stick to the plan when Douglas performs Monday. “I have never seen Gabby fall on any of her release moves for three months,” he said. “Not even once.”
Write to Stu Woo at Stu.Woo@wsj.com and Geoffrey A. Fowler at
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