Liukin makes big impression in first meet back

Associated Press  |  Last updated May 26, 2012
A few more nights like this and the reigning queen of gymnastics might be queen of the comeback, too. Olympic champion Nastia Liukin tied for third on the balance beam in her first competition in three years Saturday night. She scored a 14.9 at the US Classic, finishing 0.10 of a point behind reigning world champion Jordyn Wieber and Aly Raisman. It was the only event Liukin entered, but it was enough to let everyone know she hasn't lost any of the skills or elegant style that earned her five medals at the Beijing Games. When she was introduced as the bronze medalist, she was greeted with ear-splitting shrieks and cheers. Next up is the US championships, June 7-10 in St. Louis, where Liukin plans to add uneven bars -- her signature event and the event she needs in order to earn a spot on the US Olympic team. The Olympic trials are being held June 28-July 1 in San Jose, Calif. Raisman, a member of the US squad that won the team title at the world championships last fall, won her second straight title at the US Classic, the final qualifier for nationals. Kyla Ross, a two-time junior champion who is in her first year as a senior, was second. No reigning all-around champion has returned for the next Olympics since Nadia Comaneci, and there was a time Liukin looked certain to continue that streak. Though she competed at the 2009 US championships in her hometown of Dallas, she found herself torn between training and the opportunities that come with being only the third American woman to win the Olympic title. She wanted to go to Fashion Week and make appearances and have a hand in her business projects, but even a day or two out of the gym had her feeling as if she was starting from scratch. So, she stepped away from competition and lived as close to a normal life as an Olympic champion can. She spent time with her friends and began exploring where she wanted to go to college. She also began making the transition to the other side of the sport, taking advisory roles with both USA Gymnastics and the International Gymnastics Federation and developing a competition for younger gymnasts -- the Nastia Liukin Cup. But last summer, Liukin found herself wondering -- and worrying -- that she would be tormented by questions of ''What if?'' as she watched the gymnastics competition in London. So she returned to the gym, knowing that nothing is promised to anyone -- even her. The scoring format in team finals is unforgiving, with three gymnasts competing on each apparatus and all three scores counting. That means national team coordinator Martha Karolyi has to assemble a squad that can put up three monster scores on each of the four events, and do so consistently. The challenge is even greater for London because teams have been cut from six gymnasts to five. But if the Americans have a weakness, it's on the uneven bars, where Liukin is the Olympic silver medalist. She and China's He Kexin actually tied, but He won on a complex tiebreaker. Liukin is still in the process of perfecting her uneven bars routine, so she kicked off the comeback on the beam, where she also is the Olympic silver medalist. Liukin had some struggles during training Friday, and said she was nervous about being back out on the floor. But when it came time to compete, it was if she'd never been away. The crowd greeted her with a warm roar, and even some of her fellow gymnasts stopped to watch. The daughter of a world champion in rhythmic gymnastics, Liukin has her mother's gorgeous lines, making everything she does look elegant and effortless. One element flowed into the next, as if to say, ''Oh, you thought that was nice? You might like this, then.'' Her aerial cartwheel was done with more ease then most folks would manage on flat ground. And unlike some gymnasts, who land elements on the four-inch slab with thuds so resounding they echo across the arena, her landings are all whisper-soft. Her only flaw was a small balance check on her leap. When she landed her dismount, she flashed a big smile. The first step in her comeback had been a success. The competition was a little rougher for another returning 2008 Olympian, though. Chellsie Memmel, who has had two shoulder surgeries since November, fell twice on the balance beam.
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