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Past glory doesn't guarantee Nastia Liukin a spot on Olympic team

Liukin won the all-around gold medal in gymnastics at the Beijing Games. But she will have to show if she's still capable of being an elite performer this week at the U.S. national championships and at the Olympic trials later this month.

June 08, 2012|By Diane Pucin

ST. LOUIS — Nastia Liukin fidgeted as she waited her turn Wednesday to do a practice run-through on the balance beam. She hopped from foot to foot, glanced at her father and coach, Valeri Liukin, then looked to the floor. Then the hopping would start again.

Liukin, the reigning Olympic all-around champion who has five Olympic medals and nine world-championship medals, has to prove herself again.

As the Visa Classic U.S. national championships began here Thursday, Liukin's reputation and past results meant nothing for U.S. women's team coordinator Martha Karolyi.

"I am definitely curious to see it, and it's very important for her to present a bar routine," Karolyi said before podium training Wednesday. "Not necessarily the world's best bar routine we're expecting, but one up from last week [at the Secret Classic]. That's my expectation. And to make sure her beam routine is even more precise than at Classics."

Tough judge.

The final five-woman team will be picked after the Olympic trials in San Jose on June 28-July 1. An unannounced number of girls will qualify for the trials after nationals end Sunday.

It wasn't until earlier this year that Liukin decided for certain that she would go all out and try to make this team. She is so serious, she said that she has even quit being on Twitter. She had become a popular follow after Beijing when many of her tweets were about attending fashion shows or movie previews but seldom were about gymnastics.

"It might sound selfish, but I've gone in my own bubble now. I feel like everything I do outside the gym has to be focused on my body. Recovering from practice, massage therapy, every single thing to keep my body as strong as possible. I sleep so much. My dad will call and ask what I'm doing and I say, 'Dad, I'm already in bed.' "

Liukin said she didn't regret taking more than two years off after Beijing even if deep in her mind she never considered herself fully retired. Liukin has been a senior elite gymnast since 2005.

"It's a tough sport," the 22-year-old said. "Obviously, it's hard on the body doing it on a daily basis for so long, but it's also hard on the mind."

Last year Liukin was part of the selection committee choosing the world-championship team. Now she said she is happy to be the one trying to be chosen.

"I finally decided when you still have the passion for something and you feel the body can still take it and the mind can still take it, that I'd regret not trying.

"It hasn't been easy. My shoulders are sore sometimes, my ankle hurts and I realize how difficult this sport really is but at the same time how rewarding it is."

Karolyi said it is difficult for any gymnast to "stick around for several Olympic cycles."

"It's a hard job, especially if you're successful as Nastia," Karolyi said. "Everybody expects you to match the results you had. It depends on how much you love the sport and whether you have the desire.

"Actually at the beginning of this year I wasn't sure it was possible to have Nastia. She didn't attend a few training camps and complete certain requirements. I wanted the gymnasts to verify at least two routines and she let me know through email she was not up to the requirements and had to decline.

"I can tell you I was pleasantly surprised at Classics with what I saw. You could tell in that competition on beam, the most nerve-racking event, and saw with her training on bars that this may now be a possibility. I'm not sure, but I'll also offer her enough time to make the right decision."

So Liukin has been passed on.

For now.

diane.pucin@latimes.com

twitter.com/mepucin

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