Wide-eyed and wearing bubble gum pink

BEIJING -- The U.S. women's gymnastics team just marched into the National Indoor Stadium wearing sparkling bubble gum pink leotards. Valeri Liukin, Nasia Liukin's father and coach was so taken with staring into all the corners that he walked straight into the back of Shawn Johnson's coach Liang Chow. Liukin, an Olympic veteran himself, giggled.

The U.S. began their podium training on the floor and Chellsie Memmel stayed on the sidelines in her warmups. Memmel has been struggling with a sprained ankle.

Samantha Peszek went first and did have one stumble. Bridget Sloan went second and showed great height on her tumbling passes and her leaps. Alicia Sacramone made a mistake that has plagued her all season, going out of bounds on her second tumbling pass. Nastia Liukin did well but Shawn Johnson also flew out of bounds and looked stunned. So stunned she went back and worked out two passes again.

     -- Diane Pucin

Gymnastics always good for drama

Dominique Moceanu is shown with other gymnasts before the start of a 2006 competition in Kansas City.

HBO sent me a preview copy of the July 22 edition (10 p.m. EST/PST) of "Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel," which will have a segment that focuses on how difficult it is to become an elite-level gymnast.

Dominique Moceanu, a member of the 1996 gold medal-winning team dubbed "The Magnificent Seven," is 26 now and the mother of a seven-month old daughter.

Moceanu told HBO that her sacrifices of living a spartan life, always watching her diet, and enduring several injuries (including a stress fracture during the Olympic year) are not something she'd do again.

She said her coaches, who included Bela and Martha Karolyi, showed "very little compassion." And she told a story of having an aunt help her to smuggle Twizzlers, Mentos and gum into the practice gym by hiding them inside a teddy bear.

Moceanu didn't talk about how she tried to qualify for the 2000 Athens Olympics and the 2006 national team , after the Karolyis invited her to the monthly gymnastics training camps at their ranch.

HBO also interviewed Jennifer Sey, a former gymnast who trained in Allentown, Pa., at the Parkettes camp. Sey recently published a book, "Chalked Up," about her unhappy experiences. She did an extensive interview on Salon.com about why she wrote the book.

Chellsie Memmel, who was named to the U.S. Olympic team last Saturday, told HBO about her efforts to overcome injuries (shoulder and ankle surgery) and living with a diet that includes fruit for breakfast, chicken for lunch and more fruit for dinner. Things that Memmel describes as a normal part of discipline that most elite athletes come to accept.

Women's gymnastics and figure skating are tough sports. Most elite athletes are no older than 20 and have trained for at least a decade during a time in life when their bones are still growing. The daily pounding often results in stress injuries, small fractures and hip injuries.

There seems an element of sexism, though, when every four years, the Olympics come around -- and women's gymnastics and figure skating invariably are singled out as being particularly cruel sports.

Nose around youth baseball and check out the surgical scars on pitchers' elbows. Or women's high school and college basketball for the knee and shoulder surgical scars. Has Candace Parker, her coaches or family ever been criticized for letting her continue to play basketball after her knee injuries?

These girls may be tiny, but they also are driven athletes. Shawn Johnson would rather be in the gym than on the computer, would rather eat grilled fish than a Big Mac, and says "that's OK" if she ends up with aches and pain in 10 or 20 years. "So do football players," Johnson says. "Nobody stops them."

-- Diane Pucin

Photo: Dominique Moceanu is shown with other gymnasts before the start of a 2006 competition in Kansas City. Credit: Jill Toyoshiba/The Kansas City Star

It's art and sports

Ivana Hong on the vault runway during a June competition in Boston.

NEW WAVERLY, Texas -- I stayed awake for a long time last night, contemplating the emotionless face of 15-year-old Ivana Hong.

Last summer, she was a bubbly rookie who withstood fiercely anti-American boos during the Pan-American Games in Brazil as she and her U.S. teammates won gold while having garbage thrown their way.

Hong was the free-spirited baby sister on the world championship team who went home with a team gold medal and instructions to up her difficulty and her "grinability."

National team coordinator Martha Karolyi said that she wanted more "sturdiness" from Hong, as well as more dramatic flair -- and maybe a kiddie smile that would indicate joy was part of the process.

Instead Hong seemed to sink within herself all during this Olympic selection process. She seemed to shrink from taking chances, doing safer, smaller tricks when Karolyi was crying out that Hong suck it up and add another twist or exta twirl.

Even Hong's coach, Al Fong, lamented Saturday night that had Hong done the high-flying, solidly landed warm-up vault when it mattered, in the competition, Hong might have made the Olympic team.

"But you don't win in warm-ups," Fong said. "You win in competition. You have to do it. Ivana didn't do it."

Those words seemed harsh from the coach of a 15-year-old who is still discovering her own personality. And Ivana, who moved from Laguna Hills to train with Fong in Missouri, was stoic but dry-eyed when she said it was hard to imagine still doing this four years from now.

Hong would only be 19, younger than two members of this Olympics team, but four years of living a divided life -- her mother and siblings stay in Missouri while her father runs a company in Laguna Hills -- is not a happy prospect.

Shayla Worley grabs on to the uneven bars during a June competition in Philadelphia. If the process seems cruel -- Shayla Worley and Mattie Larson suffered leg fractures during the final part of this two-month ordeal -- it is also necessary.

"It really matters who is doing best at the end, not the beginning," said 16-year-old Bridget Sloan, who had started from behind. She needed arthroscopic surgery on her left knee in March and had to move relentlessly forward.

And, sure enough, Sloan improved slowly through nationals and the Olympic trials. She arrived for this final test at the Karolyi ranch wearing a small band underneath her left knee and reveling in landing jumps and flips without any jolts of pain.

"It doesn't hurt," Sloan said Friday. "I can do all my tricks." She did most of them, not always perfectly, but with a precise line of pointed fingers and toes and a graceful strength that made Karolyi smile -- even though Sloan always frowned through routines.

I saw Jana Bieger in tears after she made the same mistake two nights in a row on the uneven bars release move. I watched her melt in a corner as she tried to gather her fading emotional reserves -- because she knew, just knew, team selectors were losing faith in her mental sturdiness.

It was difficult to watch.

Martha Karolyi watches her team during a June competition in Boston. But the clinical Karolyi had made her point. She needed to pick gymnasts who were on an upward curve as far as physical fitness and mental solidity.

Sloan did that. Bieger and Hong didn't.

This team will stand out on the balance beam. Shawn Johnson, Nastia Liukin and Alicia Sacramone are all capable of putting out scores of 16.200 or higher, and on floor exercise, Johnson and Sacramone can crack 16 and Liukin can get close.

Where Karolyi is looking for help is on uneven bars and vault.

The Chinese have at least two girls, maybe three, who can post scores of 17 or higher. Only one American, Liukin, has done that, and she hasn't done it in a month. Chellsie Memmel has a set that can score around 16.200 or even 16.300. Johnson, at her best, might score a 15.900.

If Bieger hadn't fallen twice here, she would have scored 15.800s. Instead she was at 15 and missing confidence in her release moves.

The U.S. also needs a third strong vaulter. Sacramone and Johnson will give the U.S. scores right around 16 or a little higher. Hong could have earned her team spot if she had landed her vault that is beautiful and high in the air.

As her knee improved, Sloan's vaults became more reliable and more difficult and Karolyi said she expected them to keep getting better.

And if one wants to criticize the length of this process and the physical toll it took -- remember the broken bones suffered by Worley and Larson -- it is imperative the U.S. send athletes who can withstand the physical pounding.

Because the Chinese are likely going to offer younger, smaller girls.

Mary Lou Retton said this after watching video of the Chinese uneven bar routines: "The girls are so little, so young and they go around, whoosh, whoosh, so fast and so tight and do so many tricks, it's amazing."

Bela Karolyi, Martha's husband and the coach of Retton, Nadia Comaneci, Kim Zmeskal and Kerri Strug, makes the point often that he sees too many baby teeth in Chinese gymnasts. His point is that the Chinese might be taking advantage of an age rule that requires Olympians to turn 16 during an Olympic year.

Karolyi muses that it might be easy to do little wonders with birth certificates in a communist country. Karolyi probably knows how this could work better than most since he was a coach in Romania.

The battle for gold between the U.S. and China will be both about mental strength and big tricks. The Chinese are criticized for performing skills that may score high but also may be very difficult and often result in big falls.

The Americans prefer a little more safety. They want girls staying upright, not letting go of release moves. But they also want girls who act full of confidence, something at which Hong was failing.

When Sacramone does a come-hither hip swivel on her floor exercise, it is as much to score charm points with the judges as it is to demonstrate a skill.

That is what Karolyi said the U.S. girls need to do. They need to be more like Johnson on the balance beam. When Johnson is on that 4-inch-wide apparatus, there is no surprise when she lands a triple tumbling pass. She expects to hit that and score a 16.300.

-- Diane Pucin

Top photo: Ivana Hong on the vault runway during a June competition in Boston. Credit: Stew Milne/US Presswire

First insert: Shayla Worley grabs on to the uneven bars during a June competition in Philadelphia. Credit: Rob Carr/Associated Press

Second insert: Martha Karolyi watches her team during a June competition in Boston. Credit: Stew Milne/US Presswire


The work is never done

NEW WAVERLY, Texas -- Nearly two hours after they had finished competing, the Olympic gymnastics team and three alternates were trying on 16 possible Olympic competition leotards.

There were purple ones and bubble-gum pink ones, black ones, red ones, white ones, red-white-and-blue ones. Some had stars, some had stripes, some had stars and stripes. It reportedly takes swimmers 20 minutes to put on the skin-tight Lazr Racer swimsuits, but the gymnasts were changing in and out of the leotards in mere seconds.

The consensus favorite color was purple. "Everyone looks good in purple," Alicia Sacramone said. Finally, at about 10 p.m. here in Texas, the tired girls were back in their own warmups and leaving this Olympic selection process for good.

     -- Diane Pucin

And your Olympic team is...

NEW WAVERLY, Texas -- Joining defending world all-around champion Shawn Johnson, 16, and nine-time world medalist Nastia Liukin, 18, on the U.S. Olympic women's gymnastics team will be 20-year-old Alicia Sacramone, 16-year-old Samantha Peszek, 20-year-old Chellsie Memmel and 16-year-old Bridget Sloan. The alternates are Jana Bieger, Ivan Hong and Corrie Lothrop.

Mattie Larson, 16, of L.A., competed tonight with a probable stress fracture in one leg, which likely kept her from winning an alternate spot.

-- Diane Pucin

Now the (20-to-30-minute) wait begins

NEW WAVERLY, Texas --- Only four more routines left.

Chelsea Davis is up first, and what she might have on the line is an alternate's position. Davis' score of 15.200 might have earned her that honor.

Shawn Johnson had nothing on the line except practice, and when she was done, Johnson was giving everyone high fives. She scored a 16.300.

Peszek was up next. She smiled through every solid somersault and flip and scored 15.700.

The final competitor of this two-month selection process was veteran and emotional team leader Alicia Sacramone. The 20-year-old let no one down with her wobble-free work. Even the landing had barely a tremor. She earned a 16.200.

Now the wait begins. Expect a 20- to 30-minute wait before the final team is announced.

    -- Diane Pucin

Most important 15 minutes of the night

NEW WAVERLY, Texas -- Uneven bars is the event where the U.S. stands to lose big points to the Chinese. Three potential Chinese team members have posted bars scores well over 17 while only Nastia Liukin has done the same for the U.S.

So it is no surprise that nine of the 11 healthy girls here at the final selection camp are doing uneven bars tonight, even guaranteed team members Liukin and Shawn Johnson.

First up, Ivana Hong had a near stop and scored 14.850. That may have been her last chance to earn one of the six team spots. Memmel followed with a cautiously solid 15.900 routine with only a step on the landing as an obvious error. If Memmel was feeling insecure about her spot after hurting her neck Friday, she and her father and coach Andy were looking relieved after that performance.

Sloan, who had knee surgery last March and needs to show continuing improvement, didn't. Her routine wasn't confident and her 14.900 score showed that. Liukin almost fell on her landing and had a 16.650. She hasn't scored a 17 or higher since nationals in early June.

Jana Bieger, who also is in a fight for the final spot, fell on the same release move for the second time in two days, It took her several seconds to remount the bars and when she finished Bieger went into a corner with her back turned to the gym. Her mother and coach Andrea, a former West German national team gymnast, spoke to her daughter then walked away. Bieger remained sitting in the corner as Samantha Peszek competed.

Bieger received her score of 15.000 (it would have been 15.800 without the fall), then put on her warmups and left the corner after Peszek finished a solid routine.

Other unevens scores: Mattie Larson, 14.750; Peszek, 15.400; Chelsea Davis, 15.100; Shawn Johnson -- in her first appearance of the night, a 15.750.

   -- Diane Pucin

Last night, last chance

NEW WAVERLY, Texas -- On the final night of the women's Olympic gymnastics selection process, girls have to perform on only two of the four events, though team coordinator Martha Karolyi said she would be happy with anyone who performed more than twice. On the start list, though, no one is scheduled to do more than two routines.

Chellsie Memmel, who hurt her neck Friday, was listed as competing on vault and uneven bars.

Nerves were apparent.

Alicia Sacramone was up first on the first event, the floor exercise. She went out of bounds once and received a score of 15.400. Jana Bieger, who may be on the bubble for the last of the six spots, went out of bounds twice during her routine and left the mat with her head down. She posted a score of 15.000. Nastia Liukin, the third one up, had one big step off the mat and was given a 15.400.

Only one other girl, 16-year-old Corrie Lothrop of Gaithersburg, Md., did the floor -- and she stayed in bounds! Lothrop also doesn't have a chance to be anything but an alternate. Her score was 14.850.

    -- Diane Pucin

Balance beam scoring update

Alicia Sacramone on the balance beam during the Olympic Trials last month in Philadelphia.

NEW WAVERLY, Texas -- Nastia Liukin, Shawn Johnson and Alicia Sacramone were stellar on the balance beam, each posting scores of 16.200.

Chellsie Memmel, wearing an elastic patch on her upper back after suffering an injury during the floor exercise, returned after missing two rotations. She suffered one small bobble on the beam but hit a strong landing and gave a fierce raised arm salute to the judges. She scored a 15.900.

Bubble sitters Ivana Hong and Bridget Sloan both finished strong. Sloan's 15.600 beam score brought a smile to her normally frowning face. Hong's steady landing and 15.300 score won her a big hug from coach Al Fong.

Other scores: Samantha Peszek, 15.500; Corrie Lothrop, 15.300; Mattie Larson, 15.000; Chelsea Davis (one fall), 14.600.

-- Diane Pucin

Photo: Alicia Sacramone on the balance beam during the Olympic Trials last month in Philadelphia. Credit: Stew Milne / US PRESSWIRE

Scoring for the unevens

Jana Bieger competes on the uneven bars during the Olympic Trials in Philadelphia last month.

NEW WAVERLY, Texas -- This isn't presidential politics, but opinions and momentum can change just as quickly.

Jana Bieger, who would need to make a big contribution on the uneven bars if she takes the sixth spot on this team, took a bad fall on a release move. She landed with a thud that might have been felt 60 miles away in Houston and scored a 14.850.

In comparison, Ivana Hong, who also is clawing for the sixth spot, enjoyed one of her best uneven routines. She hit the landing, smiled big and scored 15.300.

Chellsie Memmel, who hurt her neck or upper back during her second tumbling pass on the floor exercise, chose not to compete. Earlier, she opted out of the vault.

Nastia Liukin, who has scored over 17 four times on this routine, seemed slow and less precise than she had been at nationals and trials, and she had a 16.600.

Other scores: Shawn Johnson, 15.650; Chelsea Davis and Bridget Sloan, 15.200; Samantha Peszek, 14.800; Mattie Larson and Corrie Lothrop, 14.700.

-- Diane Pucin

Photo: Jana Bieger competes on the uneven bars during the Olympic Trials in Philadelphia last month. Credit: Stew Milne / US PRESSWIRE

Vaulting update, with scoring

NEW WAVERLY, Texas -- Chellsie Memmel, who hurt her lower neck or upper back on her floor exercise rotation earlier today, did not compete in the vault after trying to swivel her neck following a warm up vault.

Teammate Alicia Sacramone kept shaking her head "no," as if trying to persuade Memmel not to risk further injury.

USA Gymnastics President Steve Penny said that Memmel hasn't pulled out of the rest of the meet but that she would warm up for each of her remaining two events -- uneven bars and balance beam -- to determine how she feels.

Here are the vault scores for those who did compete: Shawn Johnson, 15.950; Bridget Sloan, 15.300; Samantha Peszek, 15.200; Corrie Lothrop, 15.100; Ivana Hong, 15.000; Chelsea Davis, 14.950; Jana Bieger, 14.800; Nastia Liukin, 14.700; Mattie Larson, 14.600.

Sacramone scored 15.950 on her first vault, and 15.600 on her second. She did two vaults, which was necessary to qualify for the event final, which is Sacramone's aim.

-- Diane Pucin

Gymastics floor exercise scores

Mattie Larson performs her floor exercise during the U.S. Olympic Team Trials in Philadelphia last month.

NEW WAVERLY, Texas -- As we keep being told, scores from this afternoon's mini-competition aren't the be-all, end-all. Still, six judges are giving scores.

So here goes: Shawn Johnson got a 15.800, even though she went out of bounds. Mattie Larson was second with 15.400. It's too bad Larson isn't seasoned enough, because her pulsing, perky floor routine is a crowd pleaser.

Alicia Sacramone, Samantha Peszek and Bridget Sloan scored 15.300. Chelsea Davis had 15.150. Nastia Liukin and Corrie Lothrop had 15.100, and Ivana Hong had a 15.000.

Chellsie Memmel didn't get a score because she pulled up when she hurt her neck.

-- Diane Pucin

Photo: Mattie Larson performs her floor exercise during the U.S. Olympic Team Trials in Philadelphia last month. Credit: Nick Laham / Getty Images

Update on Worley; Chellsie Memmel hurt

Chellsie Memmel on the balance beam during the Olympic Trials in Philadelphia on June 22.      

NEW WAVERLY, Texas -- USA gymnastics officials say that Shayla Worley felt a pop in her right ankle while warming up on the balance beam and may have broken a bone. Worley was wearing a boot on the ankle as well as using crutches when she left the gym.

On her second tumbling pass on floor exercise, Chellsie Memmel landed hard out of bounds and started to slip backward. As she tried to regain her balance, Memmel snapped her neck. She stopped her routine immediately and the gym fell silent.

As Jana Bieger stepped up to do her routine, Bela Karolyi came to Memmel's side and massaged her neck. As Memmel sat with her neck leaning on a mat Karolyi said, "She will be fine."

-- Diane Pucin

Photo: Chellsie Memmel on the balance beam during the Olympic Trials in Philadelphia on June 22. Credit: Stew Milne / US Presswire

Eyes of Texas staring at the gymnasts

In May, the gymnasts were at the Karolyi ranch, where they follow the three p's -- practice, perform, perfection.

NEW WAVERLY, Texas -- The final pool of 12 girls from which the Olympic women's gymnastics team will be selected has been here at the Karolyi ranch since Wednesday doing routines over and over in front of coaches, the selection committee, family and friends of Bela Karolyi and about 12 media members.

Saturday night, about 5:15 Pacific time, team coordinator Martha Karolyi will announce the team. We know Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin have already earned their places. Nobody else has.

We haven't seen these women since the Olympic trials. Every movement matters here, every stretch, every pointed toe.

When Mattie Larson fell off the balance beam twice during her warmups, she frowned and buried her head in her hands.

When Ivana Hong, who is definitely fighting for the final spot, hopped, skipped, jumped, tumbled and landed every pass across that same beam with a glowering thud, Martha Karolyi said, "Very nice, Ivana." Hong smiled.

These workouts will last for about four hours. Scores may be given but what's important are the landings, the ability to hit every tumbling pass, the ability to ignore the FOB's in the gym -- Friends of Bela. There's an assortment of perfectly coiffed and made up women and men who smell of money who have been invited to see this intense practice.

Former Olympic champion Mary Lou Retton is scheduled to arrive tomorrow to offer moral support for the girls who miss the team and a reminder to the others of what is possible next month -- a gold medal, a Wheaties box, a life as an inspirational speaker.

    -- Diane Pucin

Photo: In May, the gymnasts were at the Karolyi ranch, where they follow the three p's -- practice, perform, perfection. Credit: Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times

Worley gone

In June, Shayla Worley competed on the balance beam during day four of the Olympic trials in Philadelphia.

NEW WAVERLY, Texas -- Already a big blow to a hopeful. Shayla Worley, who was on last year's world championship team and who was second at the 2007 nationals in all-around, pulled out of today's practice meet with an injury to her right lower leg.

She just wordlessly left the gym on crutches and in tears.

Worley has struggled all season with a back injury, had missed nationals and only did some events at the Olympic trials. It was important for Worley to show fitness at this camp. This new injury seems to mean that Worley is out of contention for the final spot that seems open for either Ivana Hong, Jana Bieger, Bridget Sloan or Worley to take.

     -- Diane Pucin

Photo: In June, Shayla Worley competed on the balance beam during day four of the Olympic trials in Philadelphia. Credit: Nick Laham / Getty Images

Post Olympic-trials without the tribulations

PHILADELPHIA -- The lobby scene at a hotel full of gymnasts is different. It is shorter and the noise level is more high-pitched. That's not a bad thing.

On Sunday night it was fun to see the men's and women's Olympic (and still Olympic hopeful) gymnasts let their hair down.

Really. Jana Bieger's whole face was softened when she loosened her tightly pulled ponytail.

Read on »

Gymnasts as abused pygmies? Say what, TJ?

Shawn Johson, left, may be shorter than Nastia Liukin, right, but Johnson has the best chance for individual gold in Beijing. PHILADELPHIA -- So T.J. Simers seems to think (female only) gymnasts are some sort of abused, artificially shortened mutants being used as unwitting pawns in their parents' evil plan to create tiny, glory-hounds who are sent away from home as babies until they win an Olympic medal. Then apparently they are unchained and allowed to grow to normal size, have menstrual cycles and be physically (for some) and emotionally stunted adults.

Just FYI, Shawn Johnson's parents Doug and Teri are no more than an inch or two (or maybe three for Doug)  taller than their 4-foot-9 daughter. Who goes to her local high school, lives at home, went to prom and makes one trip a month to a U.S. training camp in Houston.

Samantha Peszek's mother Luann was a gymnast and the former USA director of public relations. It's probably not an upset nor any more "abusive" that Sam is a gymnast than if her mother had been a doctor and Sam went to medical school or if her father had been a vet and Sam volunteered at an animal shelter for a few hours a week.

If T.J. would like to move into the 21st century of gymnastics observations, he would notice

Read on »

Fourth rotation, ups and downs and winners

Shawn Johnson

PHILADELPHIA -- Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin earned the two automatic Olympic team berths that were awarded Sunday night after the second round of the U.S. Olympic trials. But the big winner may have been Jana Bieger, who finished sixth in the all around.

Read on »

Rotation three, ups and downs

Mattie Larson competes on the balance beam. PHILADELPHIA -- The third rotation is over, and it's good news for L.A.'s Mattie Larson.

UPS: Larson is gaining momentum. She hit a third straight routine, punching through her balance beam routine, nailing the landing and smiling for the first time of the night. In-house radio commentator Shannon Miller has begun mentioning that Larson could be a darkhorse team contender. She scored 15.050, an improvement from Friday.

Chellsie Memmel barely had a bobble on her balance beam routine. Though only the first two all-around finshers earn automatic Olympic team invitations tonight, this crowd that is chanting "Chellsie's on, Chellsie's on," would appreciate if the team selection committee were to choose Memmel Sunday night as well. It's not as if Memmel won't make the team (barring a training injury, of course). She scored 16.100.

We're spoiled. Shawn Johnson hits connective moves, consecutive laybacks, has a tiny balance check on twirl, a baby step on her landing. Ho hum. Another 16.200 on a four-inch wide piece of wood. She reclaimed first place with that fierce demonstration of both concentration and enjoyment.

After stepping out of bounds on her floor exercise Thursday, Jana Bieger used every millimeter of the mat tonight, had her heel on the chalk outlines but never got yellow-flagged for going out of bounds. She scored 14.700, not spectacular but for the third straight routine she has improved from Friday.

Read on »

Rotation two, ups, downs and happy birthday

Chellsie Memmel PHILADELPHIA -- Chellsie Memmel turns 20 Monday and Bridget Sloan turns 16. Signs are up in the Wachovia Center with birthday wishes. Each has only one wish: making that Olympic team.

Also, 16-year-old Mackenzie Caquatto of Naperville, Ill., was a late scratch Sunday. While U.S. gymnastics officials did not immediately give a reason, it was later learned that Caquatto, who was not in contention for an Olympic spot, apparently pulled a hamstring.

UP: Nastia Liukin moved ahead of Shawn Johnson in the all-around standings with her jam-packed balance beam routine that scored 15.850.

Young Mattie Larson did a second straight solid routine -- uneven bars this time. Her routine isn't packed with difficulty (she scored 14.900), but when the selection committee is considering alternates they'll look for someone who is steady and can be put up on any apparatus in team qualifying and who will not have a big miss. Shawn Johnson's coach Liang Chow gave Larson a big hug. Bela Karolyi jumped to his feet when Chellsie Memmel sped through a pointy-toed, high-swinging, stuck-landing uneven bars routine. She beat bars queen Nastia Liukin with her score of 16.400.

Because she is soft-spoken and steady, because she isn't quite good enough to challenge Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin, because she is usually third or fourth and reliably on her way to making the Olympic team, Samantha Peszek gets overlooked. Peszek just posted

Read on »

Trials finals, first rotation, ups and downs

Nastia Liukin proved to be a little shaky on uneven bars.

PHILADELPHIA -- Not anybody's favorite position but Shawn Johnson was first girl up Sunday. She's wearing deep purple and Shawn did her 2 1/2 twisting Yurchenko. She had one step forward but otherwise the vault was textbook and she scored 15.900.

UP: Ivana Hong, 15, wore Tiger Woods red and did a confident uneven bars routine. After she landed, Hong's coach, Al Fong, raised his arms and shouted "Yes!" to the judges. Fong is trying hard to sell his pupil to the selection committee that has noted Hong has seemed insecure in her performances so far. Mattie Larson of Los Angeles, after missing badly twice during warmups, flew into her vault and was so high in the air the crowd gasped. She took a step on the landing and then puffed out her cheeks with a nervous sigh. She scored 14.700 and team coordinator Martha Karolyi nodded positively.

DOWN: Nastia Liukin, also wearing sparkling red, had her worst uneven bars performance of the four rounds of nationals and Olympic trials. She had to save her swings twice and scored 16.150. Liukin looked tired. Bridget Sloan looked nervous on unevens. Her handstands were crooked and she needed an extra swing to stay upright. As one of the girls, along with Hong, Jana Bieger and Shayla Worley in the mix for the final spot on the team, her score of 14.500 caused Sloan to wrinkle her face in disappointment.

Bieger twirled large and scored big, 15.700, on uneven bars. The normally stern Bieger smiled and earned a hug from her mother, Andrea, who is also her coach.

Chellsie Memmel, in purple, had a knee-rattling vault landing. If she hopes to pass either Johnson or Liukin as one of the top two all-arounders and earn an automatic Olympic spot tonight, that 14.200 score didn't help. 

-- Diane Pucin

Photo: Nastia Liukin proved to be a little shaky on uneven bars. Credit: Al Bello / Getty Images

Shawn's ready for her closeup

Cokezzz PHILADELPHIA -- Shawn Johnson, the leader after the first phase of the women's trials, has already attracted advertisers' attention. She is one of six U.S. athletes to be featured on Coca-Cola cans and is appearing on McDonald's packaging.

Johnson had seen her image on Coke cans at home in Iowa but was startled to see them on cans in Boston during the U.S. championships. "It was so weird because I see them in Des Moines and think it's only Des Moines," she said. "They actually have it in Boston -- why would they do it? It didn't hit me that everybody gets to see it. it was really shocking."

She has also seen her face on McDonald's cups -- and yes, unlike 2004 Olympic champion Carly Patterson, who was also depicted on cups but said she had never eaten at the fast-food outlet, Johnson has visited the golden arches.

"I eat some stuff," she said. "They've got some healthy stuff, their yogurts and their salads."

Johnson also said her gym in West Des Moines, which was damaged during the floods that have ravaged parts of the Midwest, reopened on Friday.  "It's completely back to normal," she said. "Of course we have no drywall but we have all our equipment.

"We had fountains coming out of the bottom of our [tumbling] pit. That was a little interesting. They got it fixed but I don't think our pit will be usable. But we saved the mats, which we put upstairs. We lost all the floors but bars, vault, beam -- we saved all of that."

--Helene Elliott

Photo: Courtesy Coca-Cola Co.

Fourth rotation, up and down

PHILADELPHIA -- Shawn Johnson was back in the lead going into the final rotation and Nastia Liukin moved into second after Chellsie Memmel stumbled on her floor exercise. Those positions didn't change after the final rotation.

UP: Nastia Liukin left a good impression on everyone with her elegant floor routine full of intricate dance moves and worthy of her 15.700 mark. Shawn Johnson kept the overall lead though with a vault score of 15.950. Johnson had a big step on her landing but she had the biggest start value with a 6.5.

In an in-your-face response to Johnson's vault, Alicia Sacramone landed strongly on her vault and posted a 15.900. Her start value was lower than Johnson's so Johnson's step didn't cost her the lead.

DOWN: Bridget Sloan, trying to convince the Olympic selection committee that she can power through her sore knee, flew out of bounds twice on floor exercise and received only a 14.550. And Shayla Worley, who missed the national championships because of a back injury, didn't make any deep impressions with a below-average vault score of 14.600.

Also Jana Bieger stepped well out of bounds on her first tumbling pass. If a gymnast steps out with only one foot it is a mandatory .1 deduction. If both feet are out, like Bieger, the deduction is .3.

-- Diane Pucin


Rotation three, ups and downs

PHILADELPHIA -- The energy level seemed to drop for almost everybody.

UP: But not for Samantha Peszek who quietly continues to produce steady, error-free gymnastics. She turned in a solid balance beam routine, smiled at her score of 15.800 and watched the TV cameras follow Shawn Johnson who was more low-flying than usual on her floor routine. But Johnson posted a 16.100. That was the same mark earned by Nastia Liukin who was on balance beam. Liukin had another shaky landing but her routine is packed with difficulty.

DOWN: Chellsie Memmel took a step out of bounds on her floor exercise and scored a 15.300, down from her 15.600 on the final night of nationals.

Bridget Sloan, who is recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery that caused her to withdraw from the vault competition, struggled to hold her balance three times on the balance beam and earned only a 14.850

-- Diane Pucin

Second rotation, ups and downs

Mattie Larson during the second roration.

PHILADELPHIA -- This Olympic trials is also something of a test run for the younger girls who will be moving up to take the place of the veteran exodus that occurs after every Olympics.

Mattie Larson from Los Angeles, Chelsea Davis who is coached by former world champion Kim Zmeskal, and 16-year-old Mackenzie Caquatto of Naperville, Ill., are three girls singled out by Bela Karolyi as competitors who he expects to be mainstays on the way to 2012.

Caquatto had the tough assignment Friday of being first up on the balance beam. She made it through her nervewracking series of pirouettes and somersaults until the end. Caquatto stumbled off the mat on her dismount.

UP: Chellsie Memmel powered through her balance beam routine, solidly landing breathtaking skills like her standing Arabian somersault and making all her connections. When she finished her father and coach Andy gave the crowd a pump fist. Memmel scored 16.000. She's finished her toughest two events and scored 16 and over on both.

Shawn Johnson owned the balance beam. The beam was rattled by the power of Johnson's confident landings Her score of 16.250  Up immediately after Johnson was Alicia Sacramone who offered some sassy twists and wiggles to spice up her solid skills.

Ivana Hong nailed her landing on uneven bars and posted a 15.200. She has gradually raised her score over the two rounds of nationals and this first of two nights of Olympic trials. She got a 14.950 and then a 15.100 at nationals in Boston earlier this month.

DOWN: Only because she raised expectations by scoring over 17 twice at nationals, Nastia Liukin didn't keep her legs together on a handstand and lost her landing and came down on her knee on the landing. Even so she scored 16.700 though radio commentators Shannon Miller and Brett McClure both opined that Liukin was overscored.

Mattie Larson's legs were shaking during her balance beam routine and three times she needed to fight those nerves to stay upright. Her score dropped from a 14,800 on the last night of the national championships to a 14.400 tonight. Olympic selectors want to see improvement from everybody.

After two rounds Memmel was the overall leader with a score of 32.150 followed by Johnson at 31.950 and Liukin with 31.700. The top two all-around scorers will earn automatic Olympic team berths after Sunday's final round.

   -- Diane Pucin

Photo: Mattie Larson during her balance beam routine. Credit: Rob Carr/Associated Press

More from Bela

PHILADELPHIA -- While it is Bela Karolyi's wife, Martha, who will have the final say on the six gymnasts who'll make up the U.S. Olympic team, former national coach Bela has some opinions.

An hour before the first night of Olympic trials, Karolyi said it was his opinion that Shawn Johnson, Nastia Liukin, Samantha Peszek, Chellsie Memmel and Alicia Sacramone will make the team and that the final spot was up for grabs between Bridget Sloan, Jana Bieger and Ivana Hong. Bela said that Bieger might have an advantage because she was the silver medalist in the 2006 world all-around championships and that he liked Sloan's vaulting and floor exercise and Hong's graceful lines.

Bela also said that at least 12 girls would be taken to a final team selection camp at the Karolyi ranch outside Houston. The final six-woman team, plus at least two alternates, will be named July 20.

   -- Diane Pucin

Shawn's dad could only pace

Gymnast Shawn Johnson, center, posed with her parents Teri, left, and Doug in January at her gym in West Des Moines, Iowa. PHILADELPHIA -- Late Thursday night Doug Johnson, father of all-around world champion gymnast Shawn Johnson, was pacing in front of a downtown hotel. He was wearing shorts, a Chow gymnastics T-shirt and flip-flops and his right arm was in a sling.

Johnson said he tore a bicep muscle last week when he was putting down a new floor at Chow's Gymnastics in West Des Moines, Iowa. It's the gym owned by Shawn's coach, Liang Chow, and the gym was damaged when the Raccoon River flooded. Johnson said he needs to have surgery on the arm next Thursday after he watches his daughter compete in the Olympic trials tonight and Sunday.

And he said he knows what everyone is thinking.

"Better me than Shawn," he said.

     -- Diane Pucin

Photo: Gymnast Shawn Johnson with her parents Teri, left, and Doug in January at her gym in West Des Moines, Iowa. Credit: Charlie Neibergall / Associated Press

No Sacramone sugarcoating

Shawn Johnson, right, celebrates winning gold in uneven bars in July at the 2007 Pan Am Games in Brazil with teammate Nastia Liukin, who won silver. But the fans booed the Americans. PHILADELPHIA -- Alicia Sacramone, the women's 20-year-old captain and wise elder stateswoman, says she worries that the expected sellout crowd Sunday at the Wachovia Center might be expecting more than it will receive. Yes, the women's gymnastics finals will be held there that night, but many people also expect the women's team to be announced afterward. Not quite the case.

The top-two all-around finishers will be automatically chosen and can be cheered for. But the rest of the team probably won't be known until July 20. "Really, I don't think the crowd knows that," Sacramone said. "I think they may be slightly disappointed when they figure this out.

And Philadelphia isn't a place where disappointed fans take things quietly. "Yeah," Sacramone said, "I know about the booing. Uh oh."

Many of these U.S. gymnasts are used to receiving rude treatment though. They were booed mercilessly and had garbage thrown at them at the 2007 Pan-American Games in Brazil. The partisan Brazilian crowd was so carried away that the Brazilian gymnasts begged them to quiet down and then apologized to the American team that was led by Shawn Johnson and earned a team gold medal anyway.

-- Diane Pucin

Photo of Johnson and Liukin at the 2007 Pan American Games by Jason Parkhurst / US Presswire

U.S. gymnastics trials: No rain, new road

Philadelphia renames a street in honor of the trials being held there.

The U.S. gymnastics Olympics trials get underway in Philadelphia on Thursday and there is no rain in the forecast. And that's just fine for America's best female gymnast, Shawn Johnson.

Johnson was forced out of her regular gym in West Des Moines, Iowa, by flooding that left a foot of water inside Chow's Gymnastics. In a sport in which the athlete relies on knowing where the dead spots are on the floor, where every millimeter of give comes on the balance beam and just how bouncy the uneven bars are, heading for high ground and a different training arena at Iowa State for two days was not the best way for Johnson to prepare for the trials.

More than 100 volunteers helped bail out Chow's and Johnson was able to get in a day of training before flying to Philly on Monday.

Johnson arrived in a city that is taking this trials stuff seriously. Philadelphia's main downtown thoroughfare, Broad Street, has been renamed "Road to Beijing." There's also a little Liberty Bell above Road to Beijing on the new street signs. But here's a warning: Your rental car NeverLost system remains programmed to say "Right turn on Broad Street in 2.5 miles." So don't listen to it.

The Road to Beijing doesn't exactly start or stop in Philadelphia for the gymnasts either. At most, four gymnasts -- two men and two women -- can automatically qualify based on their results this week. The rest of the teams will be selected by committees that will reconvene after the trials at other training centers to further test and evaluate before the six-member teams are named (by July 1 for the men and by July 20 for the women).

A block off the Road to Beijing in South Philly, between downtown and the Wachovia Center, where the trials will take place, is Passyunk Avenue. That is where Philly cheesesteak sandwich rivals Pat's and Geno's tempt passersby with the smell of grilling steak and onions. But don't look for gymnasts there. One cheesesteak and that double-twisting Yurchenko layout dismount could become a single twist with a thud.

-- Diane Pucin

Photo: Matt Rourke / Associated Press