NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — Gabby Douglas keeps saying it feels like deja vu, from the event to the area to the stakes.
Maybe, but only in the loosest sense.
Four years ago she arrived at the AT&T American Cup as a wide-eyed teenager, sitting quietly on a chair in the corner of a crowded room deep inside Madison Square Garden while 20 feet away a sea of cameras engulfed U.S. teammate and reigning world champion Jordyn Wieber.
Two days later, the lights came on and everything changed.
In the span of four electric rotations, Douglas matured from gymnastics prodigy to budding star, posting the top score in the invitation-only international meet to show U.S. women’s team national coordinator Martha Karolyi she could handle the pressure that comes with competing alongside the best.
Five months following her breakthrough at the Garden, Douglas stood on top of the podium at the 2012 Olympics with gold draped over her neck and the sport at her feet.
Now, just as she planned, she’s back for another go-round at the American Cup (NBC and NBC Sports Live Extra, 1 p.m. ET).
Only this time, American Cup is across the river in New Jersey. Only this time, it’s her picture on the banners outside the Prudential Center. Only this time, Douglas is the one in the middle of the cameras.
“It’s a whole different level I guess,” Douglas said.
There is, however, one constant: Douglas still has something to prove. To herself, to Karolyi and to those who still view her bid to defend her Olympic triumph in Rio this summer as little more than a publicity stunt.
Douglas hears the skepticism even as she does her best to ignore it. She gets that she’s attempting to do something that hasn’t been done in nearly 50 years.
The cycle for Olympic all-around champions — particularly if you’re American — is pretty simple: cement your spot in the sport’s royalty, cash in on your celebrity then give your body a well-deserved break by retiring and ceding the spotlight to the next wave of Karolyi’s ponytailed perfectionists.
It’s what Mary Lou Retton did a year removed from her golden moment in Los Angeles in 1984. It’s what Carly Patterson did after soaring in Athens in 2004. It’s what Nastia Liukin eventually did when the 2008 champion’s aching shoulders finally said enough during the 2012 Olympic Trials.
Douglas, however, is following a different path. She carefully plotted a path to the 2016 Games as she bounced from Iowa to Los Angeles back to Iowa before landing at Buckeye Gymnastics in Columbus, Ohio, 18 months ago. She returned to competition at the Jesolo Trophy last March with a new coach and the burden of outsized expectations that come when you have a pair of Olympic golds tucked away somewhere.
She understood getting into peak form would take time. It’s why she didn’t panic after a blah fifth-place at the P&G Championships last summer or get too concerned when her training before the 2015 World Championships in Scotland hardly made it seem she was ready to make inroads on good friend and three-time World champ Simone Biles.
Yet when the U.S. team walked through the smoke and the strobe lights at the SSE Hydro last October, Douglas did what she always seems to do when the pressure ramps up: she put on a show, helping the Americans to an easy gold in the team competition before picking up silver in the all-around behind Biles.
“I feel in a competition, it just clicks,” Douglas said.
Which is among the reasons Karolyi entered Douglas and Maggie Nichols in the eight-woman field at the American Cup rather than Biles, who will make her 2016 debut in Italy later this month. The men’s field includes three-time U.S. champion Sam Mikulak, but there’s little doubt where the star power lies.
“Gabby sometimes needs a very good incentive to train hard,” Karolyi said. “She knows a competition is a great incentive because you don’t want to go out there and look bad.”
Douglas is well aware of her performance-driven vanity. Sure she’d like to be crisper in practice. Yet she’s old enough to know that’s just not how she works. Though she will unveil a more difficult uneven bars routine on Saturday, she’s still working on the other upgrades she’ll need if she wants to catch Biles.
Even with trials four months away, Douglas insists she’s not in a hurry. She needed time off after World Championships to deal with a couple of health issues, and even as she talked on Thursday she wore an ice pack on her knee. She’s been through this before. She knows what’s coming and she wants to use that experience to her advantage.
“Why push it?” Douglas said. “Save your body. Save your energy. You’ve got to be really wise.”
Something Douglas will need to be if she wants to earn a spot on what could be the most loaded U.S. women’s Olympic team ever. Karolyi will give her stars credit to a point, but only to a point. The best five this summer, regardless of their résumé, will head to Brazil.
“Just because you won a title, [the process] won’t be any different this time around,” Karolyi said.
That’s fine by Douglas. Let others worry about her legacy or her bid to catch Biles and become the first repeat Olympic titlist since 1968. She’ll just worry about going out there and being Gabby Douglas.
“I don’t feel the need to put all that pressure on myself,” she said. “I just say to myself the Olympics will come.”
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