Olympic dream not over for American favorites
ST. LOUIS – Bridget Sloan, Nastia Liukin and Alicia Sacramone walked toward the front of a mat after the Visa Championships, each with a chance to earn a second Olympics bid. All three were relieved.
They wore red, white and blue sweat suits. Flashbulbs popped. The crowd at Chaifetz Arena cheered. The veterans' journey to appear in London was far from complete, but they knew it would continue beyond the national championships Sunday.
They waved at the audience after their names were called during a ceremony announcing the US women's gymnastics national team. They stood alongside 12 other athletes who had earned spots on the squad by their performances here in two sessions since Friday.
As a result, the former Olympians will compete at the trials June 29 and July 1 in San Jose, Calif., for a chance to clinch one of five slots at the London Games. They will try to prove that their time in the limelight hasn't passed. They will try to prove that they can live another competitive high.
"It's still the same process that you have to go through," Sacramone, a 24-year-old former captain from the 2008 Olympics team that won a silver medal, told FOXSports.com. "And it's still hard."
Yes, the process still is hard. Yet Sloan, Liukin and Sacramone approach it with a much different perspective than they did as rising talents in the buildup to Beijing.
They are older. They have nursed injuries. They have watched a new wave of stars – including 16-year-olds Jordyn Wieber, who became a repeat national champion with a score of 121.90, and second-place finisher Gabrielle Douglas (121.70) – hold the same dreams they once had before posing with their medals in China.
It's not easy watching time pass for the most competitive athletes in any discipline, but gymnastics is especially unforgiving. It's a sport for the young. Bodies break down, and outlooks change. The June 3 retirement of Shawn Johnson, another 2008 Olympics team member, shows how brief the window of opportunity can be.
"I think there's pressure on everybody," said Liukin, 22, who finished last in the 23-athlete field at the Visa Championships with a score of 56.00 after competing in balance beam and uneven bars. The Parker, Texas, native spent more than three years away to enjoy a mental break before returning at the U.S. Classic in late May. "I think every single person wants to make an Olympic team. I've been there, and I've done that. Now I'm coming back and trying to do it for a second time. It's definitely a lot harder."
It's a thought that Sloan and Sacramone share. Liukin's performance in St. Louis was disappointing. Her score of 13.65 in the uneven bars – her favorite event – shows she has much work to do before San Jose.
Liukin wasn't the only former Olympian left to study results from the weekend. Sloan and Sacramone gained lessons as well.
Sloan learned she still has a competitive spirit. The Pittsboro, Ind., native finished 10th with a score of 112.40 in her first all-around competition since 2009. A rash of injuries – including a left-ankle sprain, a pectoral issue and a biceps tear – had limited her time in the gym for most of the past three years.
Still, the sporadic schedule has inspired her to push herself to earn another Olympics bid. She trusts her ability.
"There are five spots, and we could probably fill three teams with our national team," said Sloan, 19. "It's going to be tough. But at the same time, I have a lot of experience under my belt. Mentally, physically and technically, I'm strong.
"Coming back, I honestly didn't know if I was going to be able to keep up for so long. After 2008, a lot of girls took years off. I took a few months off. I kept training in 2009. I had a great year. In 2010, I had a pretty good year. Then I started to deal with little injuries here and there. It has been tough, but I think that is what makes this sport so awesome. Everybody here is such a competitor, and we all love gymnastics because it's a tough sport."
Meanwhile, Sacramone learned she's resilient after a tough setback. The Visa Championships marked her first event since tearing her right Achilles' tendon while training for the World Championships last October.
When it was over Sunday, the Winchester, Mass., native had earned an 18th-place finish with a score of 61.25 competing in vault and balance beam. She was crowned the individual champion on vault with a score of 15.50 to cap her comeback.
"The last couple days, I realized I still have that competitive edge," Sacramone said. "I was a little nervous coming back after surgery. I didn't know if I could compete the same way as I did before. But I did, and I'm really pleased. … Getting older and having other obligations besides gymnastics makes it a little more difficult (to make a second Olympics). The girls are so talented. There are so many options for how the team could go. I think that makes it a lot harder. At the same time, that's so great for USA."
That's the scenario facing national team coordinator Martha Karolyi. She's aware what the three former Olympians can do, but she said her expectations for each athlete hoping to earn a trip to London will be the same.
So in San Jose, Karolyi will observe Sloan, Liukin and Sacramone to see if each can beat time and make a second consecutive Olympics: Will Sloan's body hold up after numerous injuries? Will Liukin regain her focus on the uneven bars? Will Sacramone continue to be strong on vault?
It's all part of the intrigue.
"I'm very pleased with their efforts," Karolyi said of the three athletes. "Very much pleased. … Sometimes the result wasn't matched with the effort, but I think we definitely needed to give them a chance to have this extra time in trials to do the best job they can."