Friend or Foe?

July 20, 2008, 2:45 p.m. (ET)
For the women trying to make the U.S. Olympic gymnastics team, it could have seemed like a cutthroat game of musical chairs. Circling the six chairs — each chair symbolizing a spot on the Olympic team — were eight women who together own 29 world championship medals. Standing behind these eight were another 14 women trying to get into the game.

Qualifying for these six spots was a multi-step process that started with the VISA Championships in Boston, June 5-7, where 13 athletes were named to the U.S. national team. These 13 qualified for 2008 Olympic Trials, June 19-22 in Philadelphia, while six others were invited to participate. Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin finished 1-2 at Trials, earning them automatic berths to the Olympic team.

The remaining four athletes were chosen at the Olympic Team Final Selection Camp in Houston, July 16-20.

On a team so rich with talent, just trying to make the Olympic team could have seemed harder than winning gold in Beijing.

“Our biggest competition is ourselves,” said reigning all-around world champion Shawn Johnson, 16, who defended her U.S. all-around title at the VISA Championships in Boston on June 7, then finished first at Trials later in June. “The USA team is going to be the strongest out there. Knowing that your biggest competition is your best friend, it’s going to make qualifying so exciting.”

“Exciting” might be putting it politely. Close behind Johnson and Liukin were veterans Alicia Sacramone, 20, with her collection of seven world championship medals — three of those medals from the vault and two from her floor routine — and Chellsie Memmel, 19, a clutch performer at 2003 Worlds where she was the third alternate, but stepped in after illness and injuries side-lined three of her teammates. She was key in the U.S. team winning gold that year by scoring the highest all-around marks for any U.S. woman during team finals. She also tied for gold in the uneven bars.

At the 2005 World Championships, Memmel became the third U.S. woman in history to win the all-around title, and the first since Shannon Miller won it in 1994. Hounded by injuries since 2006 — to her shoulder, ankle, and foot — Memmel has fought back with the one goal of making the Olympic team (she was an alternate in 2004 and was never even allowed to set foot in the athlete village). She achieved her goal on Saturday, July 19.

“I could have easily been done after 2005 Worlds,” she said at the VISA Championships. “That was a great year for me. But I still want to be on an Olympic team.”

She took the silver in uneven bars and finished third in the all-around at the VISA Championships, and was third in the all-around at Trials.

Of note, these are the first Olympic Games (and qualifiers) to use the new scoring system, which the International Gymnastics Federation first implemented in 2006. The new system incorporates credit for a routine’s difficulty and execution, and a gymnast’s score is no longer limited to a maximum of 10 points. Gymnasts, like Liukin, credit the new system with pushing them to develop more difficult routines. Liukin’s uneven bar routine has one of the highest difficulty scores (7.7) of any performed by the women.

With such talent and such high stakes — as defending world champions, the U.S. team is highly favored to win team gold in Beijing — it would seem that the VISA Championships, Olympic Trials, and Olympic Selection Camp could have gotten ugly. Surprisingly, most of the athletes don’t see it this way.

Memmel said qualifying and competing at the Olympics are “two different kinds of competition.” To make the team was an individual endeavor; they were “competing against each other and fighting against each other to make the Olympic team,” she said.

“When we go [to Beijing], we’ll be competing as the team to beat,” she added.

Is it a hard mindset to change? “No,” she replied. Even though they were competing against each other during selection, they were still a team.

“We know each other, we’re friends,” she said. “We’ve been together at camps. It’s not a hard transition because we’re friends.”

Liukin and Johnson agree that they can put their rivalry behind them off the competition floor. But while she’s competing, Liukin said she focuses on performing her routines flawlessly, not on what’s going on around her.

En route to her overall silver medal at the VISA Championships, she put a fall in the floor exercise behind her and scored over 17 points in uneven bars — a score that was one of her primary goals — in both the preliminaries on June 5 and the finals on June 7 and earned gold in the discipline. “I just go out there and do my job and do my routines the best way that I can and strive for perfection,” Liukin said.

Liukin will compete in Beijing two decades after her father, Valery, competed in the Seoul Olympics. In 1988, he won two gold and two silver medals competing for the Soviet Union in gymnastics.

“[The 2008 Olympics] are going to be special to me and my dad,” said Liukin, who is coached by her father. “It’s been 20 years since he competed. To go back there together will be really cool.”

Valery says it will be “100 times more difficult” to watch his daughter at the Olympics than it was to compete himself. “It’s very difficult for the coaches to stand there and not be able to do anything,” he says. “You’re just helpless. We just say, ‘It’s OK, honey, move on.”

Although more than 20 women have competed in the Olympic qualifying events leading up to the Final Selection Camp, all sharing a goal that only six can meet, Samantha Peszek pointed out that the qualifying process wasn’t as pressure-filled as it might have appeared.

“They gave us a couple opportunities to see how we do,” she said, referring to the VISA Championships, Trials, and the Final Selection Camp. “So they gave us more chances to shine.”

Peszek finished fourth overall at the VISA Championships and at Trials.

“Every girl here could do a good job at the Olympics for us,” Peszek said in June. “I’m sure the selection committee will make the right decision. I’m really confident that they’ll choose the team that will bring us home gold.”

On Saturday, July 19, the selection committee did make its decision. The six women going to Beijing are Johnson, Liukin, Memmel, Peszek, Sacramone, and Bridget Sloan.

 

Peggy Shinn is a freelance contributor for teamusa.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.

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