Dec 13, 2012 -- Gabrielle Douglas was one of the shining stars of the 2012 Olympics. But the gymnast's journey to the top of podium in London this past summer wasn't an easy one.
As the 16-year-old Douglas recalled in her new book, "Grace, Gold & Glory," she started out life homeless, her family living in the back of a van for nearly a year after she was born. Soon afterwards, they were taken in by relatives. Then, her father abandoned them, leaving her mother to support four young children on her own.
One of the few African Americans in the sport of gymnastics, Douglas claimed she was cruelly taunted by her former coach and teammates at Excalibur Gym, in Virginia Beach, Va., who told her to get a nose job and sometimes described her as "their slave."
In an emailed statement, Excalibur denied the allegations and insisted that management never received any reports of Douglas being bullied.
Somehow, Douglas' Olympic dreams never wavered.
"Yes I've had a lot of hardships in my life and in my career, but I never let that hurt what I do in the gym," Douglas said. "I've always put my heart into gymnastics and pushed myself every single day, no matter what else was going on."
Experts often cite such unrelenting drive as a key personality trait in top athletes such as Douglas.
Andrea Corn, a Florida sports psychologist and co-author of "Raising Your Game," said Douglas' perseverance and ability to bounce back after disappointment have played a big part in her success.
"No athlete goes through life unscathed. It's how they respond when something doesn't go their way on or off the field that makes all the difference," she said. "The ones that can shake off those negative emotions and transform them into something they can use, they have a gift and they are the ones who do best."
Liang Chow, Douglas' current coach, agreed. He said that leaving her home in Virginia Beach, Va., to learn gymnastics in the middle of the cornfields of Iowa couldn't have been easy for the then-14-year-old girl, but Douglas has always been up to the task.
"She has good physical talent, but she is also a very hard worker who is determined to reach her daily goals," Chow said. "This determination has been an essential ingredient in her success."
Because gymnastics is such a demanding sport, Chow added, any athlete who hopes to rise up the ranks must have the same sort of attitude as Douglas or they won't last.
"Every athlete has different strengths and weaknesses but the purpose must be there. I can see the ones who have mental toughness and determination and they stand out," Chow said.
Corn believes that facing tough times may have helped elevate Douglas' athletic performance. That's because it can be harder for someone to stay at the top of their game when winning is always effortless and they never experience any sort of failure or disappointment, either in athletics or outside life.
"Someone who rests on their laurels will stop trying to improve and perfect their skills. There's always someone else who is hungry and striving that can come along and take their place," she said.
Not that there haven't been times Douglas wanted to hang up her leotard and walk away from the sport. Just a few months before the Olympics, she told her mother she wanted to quit gymnastics. She'd been living away from home with a host family in Iowa for nearly two years so she could train with Chow -- one of the most renowned coaches in the sport -- and she was homesick.
"As they were packing up to go home to Virginia I wanted to go with them. I told my mother I could work at Chick-fil-A and run track," she said.
But just as she had after countless injuries and other setbacks, Douglas refocused on her goals. It took several family pep talks and a bit of coaching but, ultimately, she got her emotions under control and her mojo back. She threw herself into training once more and it paid off. In London, she grabbed gold in both the team and individual all-around competitions.
Corn said Douglas' bout of homesickness and self-doubt was normal, even for someone at the elite level.
"Even the best will cry and sometimes feel miserable, but in time they learn something valuable about themselves which makes them better athletes and better people," she said.
Fortunately, for Douglas, the worst seems to be behind her. She isn't ready to channel her trademark will to win into anything other than gymnastics for the foreseeable future and is now pointed towards the 2016 Olympic Games. She wanted the thousands of up-and-coming gymnasts who idolize her to know that the same sort of upbeat grit that has carried her through can help them reach their goals, too.
"I always tell them to never give up. Times may be tough but sacrifices, they do pay off. If you give up, you will always have regrets that you didn't push through and regret, that is the worst thing," she said.