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U.S. gymnasts facing more pressure

With national championships beginning, focus is already on the Olympics, where teams have been cut from six members to five.

August 16, 2011|By Diane Pucin
  • Jordyn Wieber and all of the gymnasts at the 2011 USA nationals in St. Paul, Minn., this week could be under a little more pressure than usual because of a new rule at the 2012 London Olympics that will limit each qualifying country to five gymnasts instead of six.
Jordyn Wieber and all of the gymnasts at the 2011 USA nationals in St. Paul,… (Rick Wilson / Associated…)

It was at the 2007 USA gymnastics championships where Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson marked themselves as rivals on the same team, as the two women most likely to star for the U.S. at the 2008 Olympics.

A similar battle might be expected this week at the 2011 USA nationals, which begin Wednesday in St. Paul, Minn.

Although Johnson and two other 2008 Olympians, Alicia Sacramone and Chellsie Memmel, are back in the competitive mix, it's possible a similar American one-two punch could be on its way between 18-year-old Rebecca Bross and 16-year-old Jordyn Wieber.

On the men's side, Jonathan Horton is aiming for his third consecutive men's all-around title, which would equal the run of Olympic gold medalist Paul Hamm.

And all the gymnasts will be under more pressure because at the 2012 London Olympics, a new rule will limit each country that qualifies a team to five gymnasts instead of six.

"That makes it trickier," said Memmel, whose comeback was a surprise to even the national coaches when she finished second in all-around at the CoverGirl Classic last month in Chicago.

Women's team coordinator Martha Karolyi said the new restrictions make picking event specialists more difficult, but she said that because the U.S. has good depth, she is not going to feel hamstrung.

"We don't have to change basically anything based on this," Karolyi said. "Maybe the countries that used too many event specialists will have to reconsider. That isn't the case for us."

Maybe not for Karolyi, but it is causing some gymnasts to change plans.

Sacramone, who had considered concentrating only on vault and balance beam in this Olympic attempt, added floor exercise so that she would be more valuable next year.

"It's definitely better odds that I do three events," Sacramone said. "It's better to have all the bases covered. Hopefully, it won't come to the point where I have to do bars; it's been a long time since I did that. Floor, though, I know what I do is clean and I can hope for a good execution score."

Steve Legendre, a contender for the U.S. men's team, called the Olympic rule change "a big difference. It requires athletes to have to contribute on more events. When you have fewer people on the team, the pressure on everyone increases. There are a lot of us who would be on the bubble for a six-man team; the dynamics are changed even more now."

Steve Penny, president of USA Gymnastics, said the idea of the rule change, instituted by the international gymnastics federation, was to give athletes from more countries a chance to compete.

Penny's objection is that by limiting teams to five members, instead of increasing overall participation numbers, top-level gymnasts from powerful teams such as the U.S., China, Russia and Romania will be left home next year.

"It's a disservice to countries with strong teams. The Olympic Games [are] the highest showcase of our sport," Penny said. "It would be too bad if a talented gymnast from a larger, traditional power missed the chance to shine at an Olympics."

But at least for this year's world championships, in October in Tokyo, teams will be able to bring six athletes. And the immediate goal in St. Paul for U.S. gymnasts will be impressing Karolyi and men's team coordinator Kevin Mazeika enough to be able to show off in Japan.

diane.pucin@latimes.com

twitter.com/mepucin

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