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"Whatever," DeGeneres answered. "I mean, really, you want to beat her. No matter how much you like her, she's your friend, but you want her to mess up."
"Maybe deep down, but...."
"Exactly, that's what I'm talking about."
GABBY DOUGLAS, born five months after her future rival, was two years old the day she disappeared inside her family's house in Virginia Beach. Her mother, Natalie Hawkins, who is divorced from Gabby's dad, Timothy, searched every nook at eye level and below, then finally found Gabby hanging from a door she had just scaled. The high jinks were nothing new. Hawkins once installed a spy camera to study the push-up to front flip Gabby used to dismount her crib. "I had to put her in gymnastics so she wouldn't kill herself," she says.
Gym classes ran into six figures, but Hawkins resolved not to let costs interfere, hoarding coupons and earning performance awards, from gift cards to gas cards, as a bill collector for HSBC. Two years ago Hawkins sent Gabby to live with a host family in Des Moines, where coach Liang Chow had mentored 2008 Olympian Johnson. "You came too late," Chow told her, referring to Gabby's age. "I'm not sure what we can do."
But Douglas was in a hurry. In March, as an exhibition gymnast, she outpointed Wieber at the American Cup. She nearly beat Wieber at nationals in St. Louis in June before her victory at the trials, where her father, an Air Force staff sergeant, was reunited with her for the first time in almost two years after a stint in Afghanistan. "When I saw him, I was overwhelmed," Gabby says.
Known as the Flying Squirrel, Douglas gets Michael Jordan--like hang time on her tumbling passes and her release moves on bars, and she carries herself with unteachable magnetism. Talk to her for five minutes and you're so energized you want to run around the block. If Wieber downplays the rivalry when she isn't on talk shows, Douglas eats it up, even offering play-by-play: "Jordyn has a great routine. Then Gabby nails it," she says in a mock-announcer voice. "Now Jordyn's fired up, and here's Gabby again. It's one-two. USA on top of the world, ahhhh."
AFTER FOUR decades of Eastern European dominance, the gymnastics landscape started shifting in the 1980s and '90s when China began competing, the Wall came down and coaches emigrated. U.S. fortunes soared after the implementation of regular Darwinian camps at the Karolyi ranch in Houston in 2000. The U.S. is the reigning women's world team champion and since '01 has led all other nations with 59 women's medals at worlds and Olympics. (Romania is next, with 35.) In the past eight years six different American women have won all-around golds.
"The expectation now has shifted completely from where it was," says Karolyi. "What was pretty good is now unacceptable; what was out of this world is now meeting the goal we set out to achieve in the first place." A high bar is no longer just an apparatus for men's gymnastics; it's also the standard that Wieber, Douglas, Maroney, Raisman and teammate Kyla Ross will be expected to reach in London. Karolyi is confident they will. "It's our finest hour," she says.