By NANCY ARMOUR, Associated Press
ST. LOUIS (AP) — Jordyn Wieber likes the challenge of a close competition.
Good thing, because it looks as if Gabby Douglas is going to be pushing her all the way to London.
The reigning world champion earned her second straight U.S. title Sunday, getting an assist when Douglas fell off the balance beam at the start of the meet. Wieber finished with 121.900 points, 0.2 ahead of Douglas.
Take away that mistake, and the competition might have looked a lot different.
"I usually thrive off the pressure, and it's so fun to have someone else so close," Wieber said. "It's more exciting."
Aly Raisman was third, further cementing her position as a must-have when the Americans are packing for the Olympics. Kyla Ross, a two-time junior champ, was fourth.
Reigning Olympic champion Nastia Liukin had another rough day in her bid to make it to London, needing to put her hand down on the balance beam and performing a watered-down routine on uneven bars. Still, she made the cut for the Olympic trials, June 28 to July 1 in San Jose, Calif. So did Beijing captain Alicia Sacramone, who was competing for the first time since blowing out her Achilles two days before the start of last fall's world championships.
The London team will be announced July 1, and only the trials winner is guaranteed a spot. A selection committee will fill in the rest of the five-person team.
"Some of them are steadily staying in place," national team coordinator Martha Karolyi said. "The last, probably two spots, could be interchangeable."
Barring injury or some other freak event, it's a good bet Wieber and Douglas will take their budding rivalry to The O2 Arena.
Wieber ran roughshod over pretty much the entire world last year. After upstaging then-world champion Aliya Mustafina at the American Cup, her first meet as a senior, she claimed her first U.S. title in a rout, winning by a whopping six points. Think those nonconference patsies SEC teams play, and you get the idea. She then led the Americans to only their third title at the world championships, and added the all-around gold.
She's learned, though, that it's a lot easier trying to get to No. 1 than stay there. Douglas actually finished ahead of her at American Cup, though her scores didn't count because she was competing as an alternate. The two tied in Friday's preliminaries, and it was clear the Americans had the makings of a 1-2 punch like the one that drove Liukin and Shawn Johnson to gold and silver at the Beijing Olympics.
"I like to have this close competition between the front-runners," national team coordinator Martha Karolyi said.
But no one is a fiercer competitor than Wieber, and she took full advantage when Douglas gave her the opportunity.
Wieber has had some trouble on uneven bars this year — there were some rough spots in training this week — but she muscled through her routine without the slightest waver. She gave a slight smile when her feet hit the mat with a solid whump on her dismount, and she and coach John Geddert exchanged a high five that almost had some brashness to it, as if to say, "Yeah, I got this."
"It works better if I go into competition relaxed and have fun," Wieber said. "Not too stressed or nervous."
Unlike Douglas, who turns the arena into her personal party, it's not always easy to tell Wieber is having fun, with a gameface that would frighten some NFL players. But floor is the one spot she lets loose, and boy did she turn on the charm Sunday. She gave a sly smile as she shimmied in time to her music, following it with a cheeky little slide step. Her tumbling passes are so massive you could have parked a Volkswagen Beetle beneath, but she landed each one without budging an inch.
When she finished her last one, Geddert, who'd been stalking the sidelines, clapped his hands above his head.
All that was left was vault, and Wieber rocked it. Soaring high above the table, her legs were glued together and her toes were perfectly pointed. Her only flaw was a step forward, but the error was minor and she and Geddert knew she had the title locked up as she climbed off the podium.
If there was a "weak" event, it was balance beam. Though Wieber whips off her tricks with so much confidence she may as well be doing them in an open field, rather than a 4-inch wide slab 4 feet off the ground, there were still too many wobbles and bobbles for Karolyi's liking.
And with Douglas closing fast, every one of those tenths counts.
"Obviously we need to be a little sharper," Geddert said. "There's a new sheriff in town."
Though Douglas was thrilled with her new silver necklace, she was all too aware she could have had a shinier prize if not for botching her beam routine.
She landed off-center on a back handspring, and wobbled and swayed as if being blown by a stiff breeze. She waved her arms and even put a hand on the beam to try and stay upright, but finally had to jump off, prompting a loud groan from the crowd. Her score of 14.1 was her lowest of the two days, by far, and dropped her almost a point behind Wieber.
"Dang it! What was I thinking?" Douglas said afterward, pounding her fists on her thighs. "It wasn't nerves. I have got to pay more attention on that first skill. I have to focus on every single skill."
But the mistake seemed to take all the pressure off Douglas, and she finished with one world-class routine after another.
"All eyes are on me," she said. "I'm going to do this thing and I'm going to do it up."
Douglas has the personality, poise and megawatt smile to captivate not just one country this summer, but two, and there's nothing she likes better than putting on a show. Hearing the crowd clapping along to her techno music only fired her up more for her floor routine, and she looked like a SuperBall as she tumbled, getting such massive height the folks in the first few rows had to look up to see her.
But it's uneven bars where she really sparkles. Karolyi has dubbed her the "Flying Squirrel" for the lightness and ease with which she flits between the bars, and she had even more pizazz than usual Sunday. When she threw herself up and back across the bar, her legs in a piked position, her form was so perfect she could have touched her nose to her knees. And LeBron and the boys in Miami would kill for her hang time, as she seemed to be suspended in the air forever before coming back down to catch the bar.
"I try to make it so high to impress you guys," she said with a giggle. "I hear people (gasp) and I'm like, 'Calm down, I'm going to catch the bar.'"
She beamed as she landed a near-perfect dismount, and even Karolyi applauded. Her score of 15.85 was the highest of the meet on an event besides vault. But it wasn't quite enough to catch Wieber.
Not this time, anyway.
Follow Nancy Armour at www.twitter.com/nrarmour
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