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Rookies look ready to tumble

A new generation of U.S. gymnasts is forcing a guessing game at the

October 11, 2009|Associated Press

LONDON — Hard to believe now, but there was a time Nastia Liukin was something of an unknown.

Oh sure, her pedigree -- dad had two Olympic gold medals, mom a world title in rhythmic gymnastics -- was common knowledge.

As was the fact she'd won back-to-back U.S. junior titles.

But how she'd fare against the very best in the world?

How good she really was?

That's what everyone was eager to see as she headed off to her first world championships in 2005.

She answered definitively, bringing home two gold medals and two silvers.

Three years later, she was the Olympic champion.

Now it's somebody else's turn as the Americans send a raw but promising team to this week's world championships in London, with Bridget Sloan and Jonathan Horton the only holdovers from Beijing.

Though there is no team competition, only all-around and individual events, worlds is the start of the next Olympic cycle.

The results at the O2 will play a big part in establishing early favorites for that next big meet in London.

The men begin competition Tuesday, and the women on Wednesday.

"If they do the routines as we expect, I think we will place them at the right position," said Martha Karolyi, women's national team coordinator. "We want this to be a good experience because we're hoping these girls will be representing us further on through the quadrennium, at next year's world championships and going on to the next Olympics."

The U.S. women brought teams of up-and-comers to both the 2002 and 2005 worlds and came up big each time, setting the tone for their success in Athens and Beijing.

Following a dismal showing at the Sydney Olympics, where they left without a single medal for the first time since 1976, the Americans won half of the events in 2002.

Fast-forward to Athens, where their six medals, including the team silver and Carly Patterson's all-around gold, was the best U.S. showing since 1984.

A new generation of Americans dominated the 2005 worlds, taking home nine medals, one shy of the maximum possible, and winning the gold in all but one event.

Two years later, the Americans won their first world title on foreign soil and six more medals.

They left Beijing clanking, too, their eight medals the most for any country.

"The dynamics every single year is different and every single time we put up the best girls who are the best prepared at that moment," Karolyi said. "... These girls have international class and they've already made a good impression, and that will set the tone for this upcoming quadrennium."

Joining Sloan are Ivana Hong, a member of the 2007 world team; Rebecca Bross, the 2007 U.S. junior champ; and Kayla Williams, who was still competing at Level 10, the step below elite, just a few months ago.

Bross is in much the same spot as Liukin was in 2005, having dominated the international scene as a junior.

At a meet in Japan two years ago, she won every single event.

An eighth-place finish on uneven bars prevented her from making it a clean sweep at last year's Pacific Rim championships.

And at the 2007 Pan American Games, where countries sent a mix of juniors and seniors, Bross helped the Americans to a team gold, won another gold on floor and finished second in the all-around.

"That was a little [test] for this," said Bross, who will likely do all-around with Sloan. "Of course there's going to be a little nerves here and there, there always is. You have to use them to your advantage and put them to good use."

Though Liukin and Shawn Johnson are both taking a break and many of Beijing's other big names are either injured (Sandra Izbasa, Oksana Chusovitina) or have moved on (Steliana Nistor), the women's field will be plenty tough.

China is bringing three members of its gold medal team from Beijing, led by all-around bronze medalists Yang Yilin and uneven bars champion He Kexin.

Russia's Ksenia Semenova and Ksenia Afanaseva went 1-2 at Europeans earlier this year.

And then there's Beth Tweddle.

The grand dame of British gymnastics had considered hanging it up after Beijing, but her titles on floor and uneven bars at Europeans proved she isn't close to being finished.

On the men's side, Horton is expected to contend with Japan's Kohei Uchimura and Fabian Hambuechen of Germany in the all-around.

After that, though, it's anyone's guess what the Americans might do. Anyone's guess who they are, too.

"We're going to keep the world guessing as to who we are. Again," national team coordinator Ron Brant said. "I think it's good for us because our depth is growing and we're excited to get the new bunch out there and show what we can do. It's pretty unlimited, I would say, the potential for this group and what they can do."

Horton is the only U.S. man with any experience at major international competitions, though Steve Legendre and Danell Leyva were part of the squad that won the Junior Pan American Championships in 2007.

Jake Dalton and Wes Haagensen have never even competed internationally.

Tim McNeill, who finished second to Horton at the U.S. championships, rounds out the team.

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