Mar 07 Friends and Foes

June 08, 2008, 7:26 p.m. (ET)
  For the women trying to make the U.S. Olympic gymnastics team, it seems like a cutthroat game of musical chairs. Circling the six chairs-each chair symbolizing a spot on the Olympic team-are eight women who together own 29 world championship medals. Standing behind these eight are another 14 women trying to get into the game.

Qualifying for these six spots is 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, scheduled for June 19-22 in Philadelphia, while six others were invited to participate. The top two in all-around competition at Trials will be named to the 2008 Olympic team (note: scores from Boston do not carry over to the Trials). The remaining four athletes will be 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 be harder than winning gold in Beijing.

"Our biggest competition is ourselves," says reigning all-around world champion Shawn Johnson, who defended her U.S. all-around title at the VISA Championships in Boston on June 7. "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 Olympic Trials and qualifying so exciting."

"Exciting" might be putting it politely. Vying for those six Olympic spots are Johnson, 16, who won three gold medals at 2007 Worlds, and Nastia Liukin, 18, who owns nine medals from three separate world championships, tying the world championship medal mark held by Shannon Miller.

Of note, these are the first Olympic 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 content, 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 start values (7.7) of any performed by the women.

Close behind Johnson and Liukin are 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 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).

"I could have easily been done after 2005 Worlds," she says. "That was a great year for me. But I still want to be on an Olympic team."

After taking silver in uneven bars and finishing third overall at the VISA Championships, Memmel is well on her way to that goal.

Other former world medalists vying for the team are 2006 silver medalist Jana Bieger; and Ivana Hong and Shayla Worley, who in 2007 helped the U.S. win its second world team gold medal in history and the first won at a world championship held outside the United States.

Bieger finished sixth overall at the VISA Championships, while Worley withdrew before the competition started. She is recovering from a back injury and has successfully petitioned the selection committee to participate in Trials. Hong took fifth overall at the VISA Championships.

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 get ugly. Surprisingly, most of the athletes don't see it this way.

Memmel says qualifying and competing at the Olympics are "two different kinds of competition."

"Right now, even though we're a team, we're still competing against each other and fighting against each other to make the Olympic team," she admits. "When we go [to Beijing], we'll be competing as the team to beat."

Is it a hard mindset to change? "No," she replies. "Even though we're competing against each other, we're still a team. We know each other. We're friends. We've been together at camps. It's not a hard transition because we're friends."

For her part, Liukin doesn't think about how she is competing against-and often beating-her friends, and it's not because she is one of the favorites. Instead, she focuses on performing her routines flawlessly, not on what's going on around her.

At the VISA Championships, she overcame a fall in her floor routine on the first day of the two-day competition to climb from 13th overall to second behind Johnson. En route to her overall silver medal, she scored over 17 points in uneven bars-one of her 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 says. "I know that if I can do that, I have a pretty good shot at making [the team]."

Assuming Liukin does make the 2008 Olympic team, she 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," says 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 the 22 women competing at the VISA Championships and the 21 moving on to Trials all share a goal that only six can meet, Samantha Peszek points out that the qualifying process isn't as pressure-filled as it might appear.

"They give us a couple opportunities to see how we do," she says, referring to the VISA Championships, Trials, and the selection camp. "So they're giving [us] more chances to shine. I think that's good for all of us. Just in case something happens, [we] have another chance."

Peszek finished fourth overall at the VISA Championships.

Johnson and Liukin appear to have a beat on the two spots to be awarded at upcoming Olympic Trials.  As the music plays and the competitors circle the six chairs, it's interesting to see who else will make the team. Sacramone? Memmel? Peszek?

"Every girl here could do a good job at the Olympics for us," Peszek says. "The name of the game right now is being healthy and playing it smart.

"I'm sure the selection committee will make the right decision," she adds. "I'm really confident that they'll choose the team that will bring us home gold."

 

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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