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As a strong-willed child, Gabby Douglas charted her own destiny

By Holly Yan, CNN
August 7, 2012 -- Updated 1532 GMT (2332 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Gabby Douglas of the U.S. is the new Olympic women's all-around gymnastics champion
  • Douglas decided at age 12 she wanted to work with coach Liang Chow
  • She moved away from her family at age 14 to chase her Olympic dream

(CNN) -- In the end, Gabby Douglas' massive gamble paid off.

Like many young girls, she sat glued to the TV during the 2008 Beijing Olympics, mesmerized by the dazzling gymnasts flipping their way to glory.

But instead of living vicariously through Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin as they won their gold medals, 12-year-old Douglas hatched a drastic plan to ensure that fairy tale became her reality:

She must train with Johnson's coach, even if that meant leaving her family in Virginia.

"She started saying, 'I need that coach. I need Coach Chow,'" her mother, Natalie Hawkins, recalled to HLN.

Liang Chow soared to international fame as a Chinese gymnast before settling down in the middle of Iowa to teach American gymnasts. It was there where Johnson morphed from a 6-year-old novice to a world-class athlete.

The U.S. men's basketball team celebrates winning the gold medal after defeating Spain on the final day of the London 2012 Olympics on Sunday, August 12. The U.S. men's basketball team celebrates winning the gold medal after defeating Spain on the final day of the London 2012 Olympics on Sunday, August 12.
Olympics: American gold medals
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Olympics: American gold medals Olympics: American gold medals
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Douglas wins women's all-around gold
Gymnast's mom on Olympic sacrifices
Kerri Strug talks Olympic gymnastics

Gabby Douglas takes gold

But Chow's gym was 1,200 miles away from Douglas, her siblings and her mother, who didn't think the idea would work.

"I said, well, I can't move the family to Iowa. I'm a single parent; I didn't have the resources to do something like that," Hawkins said.

But Douglas wasn't just headstrong; she was a rare talent who vaulted up the ranks of gymnastics at an early age.

Gabby takes a fall

She won a Virginia state championship at age 8, just two years after starting formal training.

"She just never wanted to come out of the gym," Hawkins said. "She loved it. She would just practice all the time. So I saw then the hard work."

But in order to reach her full potential, Douglas insisted she needed an elite coach -- specifically, the one she had admired on TV.

Opinion: Why we need Gabby

At age 14, Douglas received her mother's blessing to go train with Chow. The tiny athlete headed west and moved in with a host family with four younger girls, including another one of Chow's students.

Both Hawkins and her daughter would have to learn how to be a family five states apart.

"That was very painful. It was scary. How would I still be Mom back in Virginia when she's living in Iowa? How does that work?" Hawkins said.

It wasn't just the physical distance that strained the family. Douglas' gymnastics took a heavy financial toll, too.

"Sometimes it felt crushing. I didn't think I could keep her in this sport," Hawkins said. "But then I'd think about it and say, you've got to fight."

Opinion: Why we focus on Gabby Douglas' hair?

Douglas fought, too, battling through nerves and falls during her early days with Chow to bounce back in time for the 2012 Olympic trials -- where she topped the field and nabbed the only guaranteed spot on the Olympic team.

Along the way, she was nicknamed "the Flying Squirrel" for her remarkably high release moves on the uneven bars.

In her two years with Chow, Douglas won a team gold medal at the 2011 world championships in Tokyo, another team gold medal at the London Olympics and finally the sweetest prize of them all -- the Olympic individual all-around championship.

At 4 feet, 11 inches tall, Douglas now stands on top of the gymnastics world.

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