Strength in Numbers

The U.S. women are so deep in talent that the competition to go to the worlds has never been fiercer
September 03, 2006

After completingthe all-around competition at the recent U.S. gymnastics championships in St.Paul, Nastia Liukin sat forlornly recounting her mistakes. "I didn't holdthat handstand enough," she complained. "My tumbling pass wentout-of-bounds. I really need to work on everything."

You'd neverthink, from hearing that litany, that the 16-year-old Liukin had just won,successfully defending her 2005 all-around title. But expectations have risenfor her and her pigtailed teammates, who make up the deepest, most talentedsquad of U.S. women's gymnasts ever assembled. Just finishing first isn'tenough anymore.

"Even if youwin nationals," Liukin says, "you won't go to worlds if you don't dowell at the camps."

The camps are apair of training sessions in Huntsville, Texas, later this month that willdetermine which gymnasts will represent the U.S. at the world championships,which begin on Oct. 13 in Aarhus, Denmark. "This is the most intensefighting for position that I can remember," says Marta Karolyi, coordinatorof the U.S. women's team, "because we have so many good gymnasts."

The nationalswere the first contested under the sport's new scoring system, which eliminatesthe base of 10.0 and replaces it with one mark for the cumulative difficulty ofa gymnast's top 10 elements and a second mark for execution of the routines.Good scores are now in the 15--16 range.

Gymnasts arescrambling to master the new code. Liukin has even scrapped a signaturequadruple twisting backflip on floor exercises (deeming it too risky for now)and is experimenting with two new tumbling passes. Despite a few costly errorsin the finals, she still finished half a point ahead of runner-up NatashaKelley.

Last year, herfirst as a senior gymnast, Liukin won gold medals on the uneven bars andbalance beam at the worlds in Melbourne, edging teammate Chellsie Memmel inboth events. Memmel surpassed Liukin by one thousandth of a point to win theall-around crown, marking the first time that a U.S. pair had finished firstand second at the world championships.

Underscoring theteam's depth, Memmel, 18, finished only fourth in St. Paul, though she wassomewhat limited by a sore shoulder. Alicia Sacramone, 18, last year's worldchampion in floor exercises, finished fifth. Kelley, 16, had the highestdifficulty scores of the competition. The top seniors can be thankful that14-year-old Shawn Johnson is too young to compete at worlds. Johnson won thejunior competition in St. Paul with a score of 124.10, four tenths more thanLiukin, and already has a full range of skills, including a double-twistingdouble-back on floor, which no senior even attempted. "When a junior likeJohnson can do the best double-double in the world," says Karolyi,"then your program is pretty incredible."

Karolyi creditsthe team's strength to the periodic national training sessions that becamemandatory for elite gymnasts shortly after the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, wherethe U.S. failed to win a medal. The camps, which draw the top gymnasts fromclubs all over the country, emphasize consistency and repetition as much asinnovation. "Most important, we now have a culture of success where justO.K. is not O.K.," Karolyi says, "and you see the internationalresults." Indeed, U.S. women won nine medals at the 2005 worlds, tying the1987 Romanian squad for the most ever at a world championship.

Liukin is eagerto continue that success. Her parents, Valeri and Anna, now living in Parker,Texas, were world champions in their native Soviet Union. Valeri won two goldmedals in gymnastics at the 1988 Olympics, but Anna, world rhythmic champ in1987, came down with chicken pox before the Seoul Games and never went to anOlympics.

The Soviets werethe sport's gold standard then, but that has changed. "Back then we werespying on the Russians, trying to see what we had to do just to keep up,"says Mary Lou Retton, the darling of the '84 Games and now a gymnastics momherself. "These days, the Russians are spying on us."

TWO PHOTOSPETER READ MILLER (2)RAISING THE BAR Liukin was best all-around at the nationals, but Memmel (inset), last year's world champ, finished fourth. PHOTOBILL FRAKES (HAMM)

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)