Olympics

Last gasp for '08 Olympic gymnasts

FOXSports.com's Dominique Dawes says 'the end of the road has come' for Nastia Liukin.
FOXSports.com's Dominique Dawes says 'the end of the road has come' for Nastia Liukin.
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Reid Forgrave

Reid Forgrave has worked for the Des Moines Register, the Cincinnati Enquirer and the Seattle Times. His work has been recognized by Associated Press Sports Editors, the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists and the Society for Features Journalism. Follow him on Twitter.

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SAN JOSE, Calif.

So this is what the end looks like for the reigning Olympic gymnastics all-around gold medalist Nastia Liukin:

She looked to be putting on a stellar routine on the uneven bars at the U.S. Olympic trials on Friday night. And a stellar routine was much needed. After a post-Beijing hiatus from the sport, after faltering at nationals earlier this month, the 22-year-old dynamo had to kill it on the two events she was competing in. The uneven bars and the balance beam were her ticket to another Olympic team.

Liukin started strong, swinging and pirouetting from bar to bar. The crowd at the HP Pavilion was loving it. Then she just simply ran out of gas. On the upper bar, on her final handstand, she nearly overshot it. Her knees buckled. The crowd groaned. Her labored routine led her into a dismount with little momentum. She fell smack onto her butt on the mat, and then she walked away, her head in her hands.

The score popped up in the arena: 14.05. Better than at nationals. But nowhere near what she needed to prove to national team coordinator Martha Karolyi that she deserved a spot. After taking time off from the sport to bask in her Olympic glory, to appear in Subway commercials and to start her own clothing and leotard lines, she just simply didn’t appear to have the endurance.

“I could have easily just scratched after bars and said I’m finished,” said Liukin, who went on to score a wobbly 14.5 on beam. “I was at the peak and prime of my career four years ago. If anybody ever would have told me in 2008 that you would be competing at the 2012 Olympic trials, I probably wouldn’t have believed them.  . . . We’ll see what Day 2 brings.”

What Day 2 of the women’s trials will most likely bring is the final turning of the page on the 2008 team that won a team silver in Beijing.

A month ago, Shawn Johnson, who won the all-around silver in 2008, ended her comeback because a nagging knee injury just wouldn’t go away. In warm-ups on Friday, Bridget Sloan, who was on the 2008 team and went on to become the 2009 all-around world champion, dinged her elbow when she fell on the uneven bars. She pulled out of the trials with a left elbow sprain, then bid a tearful goodbye to her Olympic dreams: “Everything happens for a reason, so this was kind of my time.  . . . I have so many memories.”

Moments later, in the first rotation of the evening, Liukin fell on her dismount from the uneven bars. Immediately, the buzz was that her 2012 chances were over.

“There’s only two events she is capable of helping the team on, bars and beam. Unfortunately, she blew bars and didn't prove her beam routine was up to par with the Olympics only a month away," said FOXSports.com gymnastics expert Dominique Dawes. “She needed to show that she had the endurance to make a full bar set, and she didn't. There are too many other young, talented gymnasts deserving of that Olympic spot.”

And then Alicia Sacramone, the only other remaining veteran from the 2008 team and a bubble contender at best for 2012, put in a good — though not great — performance on her two events, the vault and the balance beam. At 24, Sacramone is making a last shot at redemption for her struggles at the 2008 games. Right now, it doesn’t appear the 2012 puzzle will include her.

It’s true: Nothing is set in stone yet. Liukin could dazzle on Sunday; Sacramone could be Karolyi’s missing piece. But before the trials began, Karolyi said she already had a team in mind. She played coy when pressed on who’d be on that team, but you’d have to guess that, after Friday, it likely won’t include a single one of those 2008 veterans.

Best guess for the five American golden girls?

Jordyn Wieber, the current all-around world champion, is a shoo-in: powerful and graceful, aggressive on her events but reserved for the cameras, never flashy, always consistent. So is Gabrielle Douglas, “The Flying Squirrel,” the tiny bundle of muscle who is the most likely American to capture hearts and maybe a gold during the 2012 games: exuberant, bubbly, a ball of energy who feeds off the crowd. Aly Raisman, who was in third place after the first day of trials, ought to make the team, too: a sweet kid and a powerhouse of a gymnast.

McKayla Maroney would bring the American team one of the best vaults in the world. She struggled Friday, falling on the beam and the uneven bars, but she hit the two events the team would need her for, the vault and the floor exercise. And Maroney might get a bit of leeway from the selection committee since she’s been recovering from a concussion suffered in nationals. The fifth spot could be a tossup between the powerful upstart Elizabeth Price and the girl she beat by .2 of a point on Friday, the long, lean, graceful Kyla Ross.

It’s impossible to get into Karolyi’s head or the heads of the other two members of the selection committee. The pieces of the puzzle need to fit together, and there’s plenty of pressure on the selection committee that they live up to the American legacy. The U.S. women have been the class of the gymnastics world since 2000. The U.S. is the only country to have won a team medal in every world championships or Olympic Games since 2000, for a combined 60 medals in that time period. Second place? A tie between China and Russia with 35 apiece.

And part of that success is letting go of the nostalgia of past glories and knowing when to move on. The new crop of female gymnasts is here, and it doesn’t look like anyone — not Shawn Johnson, not Bridget Sloan, not Alicia Sacramone, not even reigning Olympic all-around gold medalist Nastia Liukin — can stop them.

Which means that the final day of the women’s trials on Sunday will be more than just the crowning of a new group of American gymnastics queens. It’ll mean the end of the road for the 2008 team that captured a nation’s heart.

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“I’ve been playing with that notion in my head a little bit,” Sacramone said after Friday’s competition. “If I compete well, I can end my career with no regrets. I went out and did the best I could eight, nine months post-surgery (on a torn Achilles tendon). I think that’s a big accomplishment in itself. I think it would be a good time for me to bow out and just be proud of my accomplishments.”

Liukin sat on the other side of the room, surrounded by a gaggle of reporters. She clutched her iPhone between her knees, and she smiled. She said she wants to do her best on Day 2 of trials on Sunday, and she still hopes to make the team. She’d even consider being an alternate. But Liukin also seemed at peace with the likelihood that Sunday could be her final meet. If she’s not on the team, she’ll do the post-Olympics gymnastics tour, and then she’ll head to New York, where she’s scheduled to begin classes at NYU in January.

“I’ve always been taught that no matter how frustrated, no matter how disappointed you are, life moves on,” she said. “And honestly, whatever happens on Sunday, whether or not I’m on that Olympic team, I’ll be in London either way. And I’m excited for the rest of my life.”

Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave or email him at reidforgrave@gmail.com.

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