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Memmel puts up a strong challenge

June 22, 2008|Diane Pucin | Times Staff Writer

PHILADELPHIA -- Bela Karolyi can't wait.

He has watched Chellsie Memmel pull closer to the best of the U.S. -- something unexpected given that she was written off by many women's gymnastics officials, including Karolyi and his wife Martha, the U.S. team coordinator, as recently as two months ago.

Going into tonight, the second and final night of the U.S. Olympic trials at the Wachovia Center, 2007 world champion Shawn Johnson is first with 64.000 points, with Nastia Liukin, who handed Johnson her only all-around loss in the last two years, in second place with 63.500 and Memmel, who sat out last year's world championships while recovering from shoulder surgery, third at 62.250.

The gymnasts who finish first and second in the all-around after the scores from Friday and today are combined will earn automatic Olympic berths. The other four team members and alternates will be selected July 20 after a training and selection camp at the Karolyi ranch near Houston.

"I am loving it," Karolyi said. "Chellsie is not giving up anything. She is going to stay breathing down their backs. Shawn and Nastia, they have been thinking they have it so good, they are one and two. And now, wow. Chellsie. They are going to be looking over their shoulders.

"A month ago Chellsie wasn't even walking on the balance beam. Now, look at her."

Memmel's beam score trailed those of only Johnson and world champion Liukin on Friday.

Bela Karolyi said that in today's finals he and Martha are hoping to see continued improvement from Jana Bieger. Bieger, 18, from Coconut Creek, Fla., was the world all-around silver medalist at the 2006 world championships.

She struggled through an injury-plagued 2007 season and did not make the U.S. world championship team that competed in Stuttgart, Germany, and won team gold.

Bieger's mother and coach, Andrea, was born in Germany, and Jana wanted to cement her international reputation and show Andrea's coaching strengths.

Bieger was sixth in the all-around after Friday night. Her best standing came with a fourth place on uneven bars.

Karolyi said that he believes Bieger would do well in Beijing.

"Bieger is positive for me," Karolyi said. "She is on a good path to get back into shape and on the international scene where she is scoring well, not because of her artistry but because of her power. Her power is paid by the judges.

"They saw a tremendous athlete on the floor in 2006 and they remember."

Karolyi pointed to 15-year-olds Ivana Hong and Bridget Sloan and 17-year-old Shayla Worley as competitors who need to show more than Friday and later at the selection camp.

"Hong needs to do better," Karolyi said. "Bridget also needs to show some more readiness. Shayla, also, is on that path of needing improvement. Friday? Only so-so."

Worley is fighting a sore back, Sloan is recovering from knee surgery she had in March and Hong, who is competing despite a bad cold, has had too many little mistakes over the two rounds of nationals and first night of trials, Karolyi said.

Hong and Worley were on the 2007 world championship team, and Sloan was an alternate.


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