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Liukin to compete for first time since 2009 at Secret U.S. Classic

May 25, 2012, 2 p.m. (ET)

PLANO, Texas (AP) -- Nastia Liukin no longer notices the larger-than-life photo that greets visitors when they arrive at her gym, the one where her smile is as bright as the Olympic gold medal she's holding. The blown-up magazine cover hanging on the back wall, the one featuring her wearing all five of her medals, rarely gets a second glance, either.

 Nastia Liukin

Much like Nadia and Mary Lou before her, Liukin secured her place among gymnastics' greats with a dazzling performance on a global stage. She claimed the sport's biggest prize, the all-around gold, in a riveting rivalry with teammate Shawn Johnson, and only swimmers Michael Phelps and Natalie Coughlin left the Beijing Games with more medals. Liukin's five were the most won by a female gymnast at a single Olympics since Shannon Miller also won five in 1992.

None of that means much now, though, as Liukin takes a spot on the floor among girls half her age, stretching as she readies to begin training before most folks have even poured their first cup of coffee.

"I don't have any advantages by being the Olympic all-around champion going into these games. No one's going to give you higher scores, no one's going to be nicer or play fairer," Liukin said. "I don't feel like I owe anybody anything. I'm doing this because I love to do it and I want to see if I can do this.

"Everything feels different this time," she added. "But it's a good different."

Liukin competes for the first time since 2009 on Saturday at the U.S. Classic, a qualifier for next month's national championships. She plans to do one event, balance beam.

There is a reason Nadia Comaneci is the last female Olympic champion to return for the next games. The physical demands of the sport are enormous, and the flexibility and dexterity required are gifts that fade with each year. Though some gymnasts now continue competing into their late teens and early 20s, most are done before their friends have finished college, their bodies unable to keep up with the newest generation of pixies.

Being the brightest star in an Olympic glamour sport usually means commercial success, too, particularly for someone with Liukin's blonde good looks and sweet family story. She is the gymnastics equivalent of royalty, the daughter of Valeri, a double gold medalist at the Seoul Olympics, and Anna, a world champion in rhythmic gymnastics. With little money when they moved here after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the gym became little Nastia's playpen. Despite her parents' wishes that she do something -- anything -- besides gymnastics, Liukin's talent was undeniable, and one of the most touching scenes in Beijing was Valeri wrapping his only child in a tight embrace after she'd won gold, his eyes filled with tears and pride.

"What you do for yourself you forget, quick," said Valeri, who has coached his daughter her entire career. "This is so much bigger, what she's done with her talent, with herself."

But the opportunities Beijing brought have a short shelf life, too, and Liukin found herself torn when she tried to compete in 2009. She wanted to go to Fashion Week and make appearances and have a hand in her business projects. But even just a day or two out of the gym made her feel as if she was starting from scratch.

"You can't have the role of being the Olympic all-around champion, fulfilling these obligations, and being an Olympic hopeful, trying to make a second Olympic team," she said. "You have to be one or the other."

So Liukin, who turns 23 on Oct. 30, chose the normal life. She got her own place, spent time with her friends and traveled. She started 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.

Though she left open the possibility of returning for London, the odds seemed smaller and smaller the closer the games got.

"There was definitely a time I was done," Liukin said. "My heart was somewhere else. Even though I love the sport of gymnastics and I know I always will, I didn't have that passion to strive for perfection like I did in 2008. So I knew it wasn't right."

Then, last summer, her mindset changed. She found herself wondering how she'd feel watching the competition in London, worrying that she'd be tormented by questions of "What if?" She realized she was enjoying training again, relishing the challenge of pushing her body and seeing it respond. She cut way back on commitments outside the gym and curtailed her social life; her father was almost speechless when he called at 9 p.m. recently and Liukin told him she was in bed -- and he's her coach.

That didn't erase all her doubts, however. Liukin had already achieved her ultimate goal, a title that had driven her for so many years and prompted so many sacrifices. Would making a second Olympic team mean as much? After being an all-arounder her entire career, could she be satisfied only doing uneven bars and balance beam?

"When you're sitting there and thinking about it, if you're at home or at worlds or somewhere, it's all exciting. 'Oh yeah, I want to make an Olympic team!'" she said. "After I decided that I wanted to do this, I was definitely worried a little bit. Am I really going to enjoy this process or is it just going to be like something that I'm making myself do? And I found I am enjoying the process. That's not to say it's not hard on a daily basis because you're obviously working very hard. But ... the spark was there, the excitement was there.

"Every time I got a skill back or learned something else or put two skills together or finally started doing a beam routine or made a dismount, it was exciting to me. So I finally felt like it seemed right, and it seems like I'm doing the right thing."

Liukin didn't tell her father about her comeback plans right away, wanting him to see her working in the gym first so he would know she was serious.

"If you can't win, I'm not going to let you compete. That's what I told her right away," Valeri Liukin said. "But I see right now in her mind, she's totally different. She wants to help, she wants to be part of the team. She wants to help the team to win the gold."

The Americans, who won their third world title last fall, have been Olympic champions just once, with the Magnificent Seven back in 1996.

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 it consistently. The challenge is even greater for London because teams have been cut from six gymnasts to five.

The Americans have plenty of depth on vault, balance beam and floor exercise. Their weakness is uneven bars -- which just happens to be Liukin's signature event. She won a silver medal on bars in Beijing -- she and China's He Kexin actually tied, but He won on a complex tiebreaker -- with a routine that was ridiculously difficult, an intricate mix of turns and twists that showcased her elegance and lines. When Liukin told her father of her comeback plans, he immediately began cooking up another "crazy" routine, one that could have a start value close to 7.0.

Gabby Douglas, the top American on bars these days, had a 6.5 start value at American Cup in March, with plans to add another four-tenths of difficulty.

Liukin's comeback has been complicated by shoulder problems, small tears in the labrum and rotator cuff. The tears aren't big enough to require surgery, but the pain was bad enough to take her off the uneven bars for about a month and make her question whether she'd be able to continue.

"Beam is pretty much there. She's got everything the way it was and she's got a couple of other skills we can do," Valeri Liukin said. "But if bars is not going to be there, we don't need beam, either."

Those closest to Liukin noticed the change in her mood, and reminded her that she'd dealt with injuries before -- most notably a bad ankle that hampered her at the end of 2006 and throughout 2007. She has always been a fighter, they told her, a solid core of steel often obscured by that grace and beauty.

"So I kind of snapped out of it and realized, 'I can do this if I set my mind to it,'" she said.

"People tell me, 'Why are you doing this?' Or, 'You can't do this.' But for me, this isn't my first time around. I know what it takes to make an Olympic team," Liukin said, her eyes flashing and her tone growing feisty. "And it's not enough just to make an Olympic team. It's winning medals. You always strive for the best and you always strive for perfection. It's not just going to be enough to stay on the beam or to stay on the bars."

Therapy has strengthened Liukin's shoulders, and she is back to doing all of her skills and release moves. She plans to be ready to compete on uneven bars at nationals, which are June 7-10 in St. Louis. The Olympic trials are three weeks later in San Jose, and the team will be named July 1.

"As much as anybody says they'll be OK with not making the team, deep down you're really not. Because if you put all this time and effort and hard work into this, how are you going to walk away and say, 'Oh, it's fine, I tried,'" Liukin said. "I'd definitely regret it more by not trying than by trying and not making it. But at the same time, it will be hard to swallow not making that Olympic team."

So she presses forward, determined to beat the clock. She may not look at those pictures at the gym, but she knows they are there.

More than that, she knows what they represent.

"So many people said, 'Oh, you could be the best in the world if you were healthy. You could be the best in the world if you were stronger. You could be the best in the world if you had more difficulty.' And at that very moment, I proved I had everything that it took to be the best in the world," she said. "It was almost a lesson in disguise telling me, 'If you do set your mind to something and if you work hard and if you really believe in yourself, than anything is possible.'"

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Nastia Liukin