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Johnson and Liukin bop to top of list

They are in first and second place after the opening night of the U.S. women's gymnastics championships.

June 06, 2008|Diane Pucin | Times Staff Writer

BOSTON -- Shawn Johnson, 16, announced emphatically that she is ready to defend her national gymnastics all-around title by pounding out a powerful floor exercise routine, four passes packed with double twisting somersaults and triple circling balance moves.

Nastia Liukin, 18, scored her highest mark on uneven bars, 17.050, and that only brought her to second place Thursday on the first night of the 2008 Visa Championships women's gymnastics nationals at Agganis Arena.

Johnson, who suffered her only all-around defeat since becoming a senior level competitor last year to Liukin at the Tyson's American Cup in New York in March, had a 63.450 all-around score. Liukin finished with 62.300 points and the surprising third-place finisher was 19-year-old 2005 world champion Chellsie Memmel. Memmel has struggled through a serious shoulder injury the last two years.

Johnson and Liukin said whether they finish first or second after Saturday's final isn't the point. "Winning a title would be nice, sure," Johnson said, "you always want to win. But this is about getting ready for the Olympics."

"Honestly," Liukin said, "I'm not even thinking about winning a title. For me it's about testing where I'm at and starting to get things ready for the Olympics."

With their international results over the last two years making Johnson and Liukin nearly sure things for the six-woman U.S. Olympic team, national coordinator Martha Karolyi was closely watching the other competitors.

Memmel said she came here with something to prove. "People forget about you when you're not around," she said. "I want to make people remember me."

Jana Bieger, world silver all-around medalist in 2006, didn't make last year's world championship gold medal team while fighting through a foot injury. She is in fifth place overall, behind Samantha Peszek, and also said she was fighting for attention. "I hit four routines and didn't show nerves tonight," Bieger said. "I have to put myself back in the discussion."

Los Angeles gymnast Mattie Larson, 16, who was making her first appearance at senior nationals, was in seventh place overall and finished third with her bouncy floor exercise routine. Her first apparatus was the balance beam where Larson had a fall. "I was so nervous," she said. "I think Saturday will be much better."

The top 12 finishers after Saturday's competition automatically advance to the June 19-22 Olympic trials in Philadelphia. The top two all-around finishers there will make the Olympic team. The final four members plus alternates will be chosen after a July training camp at the Karolyi ranch in Texas.

Johnson and Liukin competed in the same rotations, first on floor exercise, then vault, uneven bars and finally balance beam. Liukin started from behind, falling to her knees on her floor exercise routine, then stepping out of bounds. While Johnson was nearly perfect, scoring 16.050, Liukin had her head down after her mistakes brought her a score of 14.250, which turned out to be only the 16th-highest floor score of the night.

Liukin fell further behind on the vault where Johnson's Yurchenko with two and a half twists was landed with barely a wobble, earning her a 16.000. Liukin did an easier vault with two twists and received a score of 14.900.

But on the final two events Liukin put aside the early mistakes and closed the gap with Johnson. Doing an uneven bars routine that included three release moves, Liukin pumped her fist after holding her landing. And she danced lightly across the balance beam to score best on that apparatus as well.

Shayla Worley, who was part of last year's world champion gold medal team and who finished second at last year's national championships, withdrew before Thursday's start because of a back injury. She will file a petition to be invited to the Olympic trials.

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diane.pucin@latimes.com

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