the all-around competition at the recent U.S. gymnastics championships in St.
Paul, Nastia Liukin sat forlornly recounting her mistakes. "I didn't hold
that handstand enough," she complained. "My tumbling pass went
out-of-bounds. I really need to work on everything."
think, from hearing that litany, that the 16-year-old Liukin had just won,
successfully defending her 2005 all-around title. But expectations have risen
for her and her pigtailed teammates, who make up the deepest, most talented
squad of U.S. women's gymnasts ever assembled. Just finishing first isn't
"Even if you
win nationals," Liukin says, "you won't go to worlds if you don't do
well at the camps."
The camps are a
pair of training sessions in Huntsville, Texas, later this month that will
determine which gymnasts will represent the U.S. at the world championships,
which begin on Oct. 13 in Aarhus, Denmark. "This is the most intense
fighting for position that I can remember," says Marta Karolyi, coordinator
of the U.S. women's team, "because we have so many good gymnasts."
were the first contested under the sport's new scoring system, which eliminates
the base of 10.0 and replaces it with one mark for the cumulative difficulty of
a gymnast's top 10 elements and a second mark for execution of the routines.
Good scores are now in the 15--16 range.
scrambling to master the new code. Liukin has even scrapped a signature
quadruple twisting backflip on floor exercises (deeming it too risky for now)
and is experimenting with two new tumbling passes. Despite a few costly errors
in the finals, she still finished half a point ahead of runner-up Natasha
Last year, her
first as a senior gymnast, Liukin won gold medals on the uneven bars and
balance beam at the worlds in Melbourne, edging teammate Chellsie Memmel in
both events. Memmel surpassed Liukin by one thousandth of a point to win the
all-around crown, marking the first time that a U.S. pair had finished first
and second at the world championships.
team's depth, Memmel, 18, finished only fourth in St. Paul, though she was
somewhat limited by a sore shoulder. Alicia Sacramone, 18, last year's world
champion in floor exercises, finished fifth. Kelley, 16, had the highest
difficulty scores of the competition. The top seniors can be thankful that
14-year-old Shawn Johnson is too young to compete at worlds. Johnson won the
junior competition in St. Paul with a score of 124.10, four tenths more than
Liukin, and already has a full range of skills, including a double-twisting
double-back on floor, which no senior even attempted. "When a junior like
Johnson can do the best double-double in the world," says Karolyi,
"then your program is pretty incredible."
the team's strength to the periodic national training sessions that became
mandatory for elite gymnasts shortly after the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, where
the U.S. failed to win a medal. The camps, which draw the top gymnasts from
clubs all over the country, emphasize consistency and repetition as much as
innovation. "Most important, we now have a culture of success where just
O.K. is not O.K.," Karolyi says, "and you see the international
results." Indeed, U.S. women won nine medals at the 2005 worlds, tying the
1987 Romanian squad for the most ever at a world championship.
Liukin is eager
to continue that success. Her parents, Valeri and Anna, now living in Parker,
Texas, were world champions in their native Soviet Union. Valeri won two gold
medals in gymnastics at the 1988 Olympics, but Anna, world rhythmic champ in
1987, came down with chicken pox before the Seoul Games and never went to an