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Strength in Numbers
Brian Cazeneuve
September 04, 2006
The U.S. women are so deep in talent that the competition to go to the worlds has never been fiercer
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September 04, 2006

Strength In Numbers

The U.S. women are so deep in talent that the competition to go to the worlds has never been fiercer

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After completing 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."

You'd never 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 enough anymore.

"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."

The nationals 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.

Gymnasts are 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 Kelley.

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.

Underscoring the 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."

Karolyi credits 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 Olympics.

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