By NANCY ARMOUR, Associated Press
ST. LOUIS (AP) — Four years after Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson's captivating rivalry at the Beijing Olympics, the Americans might have themselves another 1-2 punch.
Gabby Douglas pulled off something of an upset Friday night, tying world champion Jordyn Wieber after the first day at the U.S. gymnastics championships. The two finished with 60.650 points, with Aly Raisman 0.45 behind. The finals are Sunday.
"We're right where we need to be," John Geddert, Wieber's coach, insisted. "This one doesn't count for a whole lot. Those who save some for later usually do well."
He has a point. Only the winner of the Olympic trials June 28-July 1 in San Jose, Calif., is guaranteed a spot on the London team, with a selection committee picking the remaining four members. And Liukin was second to Johnson at both nationals and trials in 2008, only to leave Beijing with the biggest prize. Same for Athens Olympics champion Carly Patterson, who tied Courtney Kupets at the 2004 U.S. championships.
Still, with the way Wieber has routed the competition these last few years, it's big news when anyone gets close to her, let alone matches her.
"I feel really awesome right now and all this hard work is paying off," Douglas said. "I just have to not get cocky right now."
Liukin, meanwhile, has some work to do to make her second Olympic team. The Beijing all-around champion knows if she's going to make the London squad, it will be because of uneven bars, her signature event. But was her first time competing uneven bars since winning a silver medal on them at the Beijing Games — she and China's He Kexin actually had the same score, but He won the gold on a complex tiebreaker — and the rust clearly showed.
She stalled on several of her pirouettes, and lost her rhythm after a big form break on the low bar. Though she's been doing a dismount in training that would push her start value sky high — two forward somersaults, the last with a half-twist — it's still a work in progress. She played it safe instead, doing one she mastered when she was, oh, about 10.
That's probably the last time she had a score this low, too: a 13.15 with just a 7.35 for execution.
"It wasn't even about the score, it was more about my routine," Liukin said. "I hit my foot on the bar, (made) just very uncharacteristic mistakes. My dad was like 'What happened?' and I honestly have no idea."
But Valeri Liukin, her father and coach, said he's not concerned. All of her mistakes are fixable, he said, most the result of adrenaline.
"She'll be better," he said.
Douglas was something of a surprise when she made last year's world championship squad, with scant international experience and seemingly little stage presence. But she blossomed in the spotlight, and with her bubbly personality and megawatt smile, she's now got some serious star power to go with her skills. She actually beat Wieber at the American Cup in March, but her scores didn't count because she was competing as an alternate.
This time, though, no asterisk is needed.
Martha Karolyi has dubbed Douglas the "Flying Squirrel" for her circus-like acrobatics on uneven bars. She soared so high on her first release, flipping herself up and back over the bar, her legs piked, that she could have reached out and touched her toes before grabbing the bar. She had the crowd oohing and aahing throughout the routine, and when she hit the mat with a solid thud, she threw up her arms, a big grin exploding across her face.
There's more to Douglas than simply uneven bars, though. Her legs looked as if they had springs in them, flying so high above the floor you could have driven one of those new little Fiats beneath her. And while other gymnasts look so robotic or wooden they may as well be using elevator music, Douglas makes her routine look like performance art. She gave a sassy grin as she waved her hands in time to the thumping techno music, and seemed to make eye contact with everyone in the arena.
When she came off the floor, she and coach Liang Chow slapped hands before he gave her a big hug.
"I don't think the goal is ever of winning, it's just to go out there and do your best," Douglas said. "If you think about winning, you put too much stress on yourself. Then you're like 'Oh (no), everybody's looking at me to win. What if I mess up? What if they hate me?' That type of pressure gets in your mind."
And Douglas wasn't perfect. She had several big wobbles on balance beam, and a big step off the mat left the door open for Wieber.
Wieber has lost one — count it, one — all-around competition since the 2008 season, and is considered the heavy favorite for London. Not only does she have some of the toughest tricks in the world, but she's as fierce a competitor as you will find. One mistake from her is rare, two or three is practically unheard of.
But she had an uncharacteristically rough night, with unsteady performances on both vault and balance beam. By the time she came to floor, her final event, she needed a 15.25 just to catch Douglas.
"My coach told me the score that I needed before I went out there," Wieber said. "It made me want to squeeze every little tenth out of my routine."
It showed. She got some serious hang time on her tumbling runs, but landed them so securely she had to have had sticky tape on the bottoms of her feet. She shimmied her hips to her peppy music, oozing so much charm and personality that Geddert was clapping his hands above his head. She punctuated the routine with a flawless landing, not budging an inch as she flashed a big smile.
"It was one of my best floors," Wieber said. "I definitely think I put everything I had in my routine and I just went out there and performed."
If she and Douglas keep this up, the show might not stop until London.
Follow Nancy Armour at www.twitter.com/nrarmour
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