LONDON — When Gabrielle Douglas is doing her best gymnastics — when she is swinging so fast around the uneven bars that she makes the air buzz, or when she tiptoes across the balance beam and you notice her smile because she makes a somersault seem so routine — other gymnasts seem to fade away.
Douglas, a 16-year-old from Virginia Beach, Va., has the dazzling personality and outstanding skills to make other gymnasts disappear into the background.
But just when it seems time to pronounce her the best or most talented gymnast, there will be a thud. Oops, that was Douglas falling off the balance beam at the U.S. national championships, a mistake that cost her a point and the title that went to Jordyn Wieber.
When it mattered here at the 2012 Olympics, though, on qualification day, Douglas avoided any big kabooms. And so she will be among the favorites Thursday when the Olympic gymnastics women’s all-around is contested.
Instead of another head-to-head battle against Wieber, who is the world champion, Douglas, 16, will compete next to the surprise American qualifier, Alexandra Raisman of Needham, Mass. Eighteen-year-old Raisman’s historic strength has been her calm team leadership rather than ability to be a star.
Wieber, who had been the gold-medal favorite, finished fourth among all the gymnasts in qualifications but only third-best on her team, and the Olympic rule since 2000 is that only two gymnasts per country are allowed into the all-around final.
At the Beijing Olympics, two Americans, Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson, won the all-around gold and silver, and in 2004 American Carly Patterson was the all-around gold winner, so there is a streak that Douglas and Raisman will aim to defend.
“I don’t want it to stop,” said Douglas, who has been having the best 2012 of any gymnast in the world.
Still, Douglas’ performances can be marked by nervous errors. Johnson, who trained under coach Liang Chow in West Des Moines, Iowa, where Douglas trains now, noted that Douglas can hit “20 for 20 without making a mistake in practice,” and then crash in front of the crowds.
Former U.S. national coach Bela Karolyi described Douglas as “a flame, a beautiful flame that can shine and glow but can fade out.”
Besides Douglas and Raisman, Russians Victoria Komova, who qualified with the best score, and Aliya Mustafina; Romania’s Larisa Iordache; and China’s Deng Linlin are expected to contest for the all-around medals.