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Friday, June 20, 2008
Spring makes his case for Olympic team

Associated Press

PHILADELPHIA -- Start looking for the passports and the big suitcases, Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin have their trips to the Beijing Olympics all but locked up.

The best Americans showed why they're also the best in the world Friday night, all but sealing spots on a team that will be favored to win the gold medal in Beijing. Johnson edged Liukin again, just as she did at the national championships two weeks ago, but the margin is so small, it could be erased with a stuck landing from one or a bobble by the other.

"I remember watching the trials in 2004 and thinking, `This is the biggest meet of their lives," Johnson said. "I don't believe I'm even here. It's crazy. To know I'm so close to securing a spot on the team, pinch me."

Johnson finished with 64 points and Liukin was right behind at 63.5. The finals are Sunday night, with the top two earning spots on the Beijing squad. But, barring injury, there's little doubt of who that will be, so the intrigue turns to who will get the remaining four spots.

The rest of the team, along with three alternates, will be chosen after a July 20 selection camp at the Karolyi ranch.

Comeback kid Chellsie Memmel had another strong night. Memmel became only the third U.S. woman to win the world all-around title in 2005 (Johnson has since joined the exclusive club) but she was all but forgotten after a blown-out shoulder cost her most of the last two years.

Not anymore. In a repeat of nationals, Memmel finished behind Johnson and Liukin and had the second-highest uneven bar score.

"I hope I've been proving to (national team coordinator Martha Karolyi) that I'm a solid competitor and can be an asset to the team," Memmel said. "I'm very excited with how this week is going and with how championships went. I'm getting more confident with each competition."

Samantha Peszek, a member of last year's world team, was fourth with another strong effort. She's not the most dynamic gymnast, but she's consistent and that counts when Olympic medals are on the line.

Johnson was forced out of her gym for two days last week when the floods that ravaged Iowa left a foot of water in her building. That may not sound like a big deal, but any change in routine is a disruption, especially that close to the trials. And for the two days that she trained at Iowa State, Johnson was working on equipment made by a different manufacturer than she's used to.

But if it was a distraction, Johnson didn't show it. She posted the highest scores of the night on vault, balance beam and floor exercise.

"I tried really hard not to let it affect me. I said, `OK, this is what I've been given and what I have to deal with," Johnson said. "I think it made me stronger mentally and physically. I had to learn to adapt to everything coming on. I was just ready for everything."

Liukin finished second to Johnson on beam and floor, but the difference-maker was on uneven bars.

Liukin has one of the most difficult uneven bars routines in the world, loaded with so many tough tricks she's gasping for breath when she's finished. It was a little too much for her Friday night, and she didn't get close to the height she needed for her dismount, landing almost on her knees and pitching forward.

Her score of 16.7 was still the highest of the night on any event, and it would stack up against almost anyone in the world. But it was lower than the 17s she got two weeks at nationals, and it was enough to give Johnson the edge.

"I did just run out of gas," Liukin said. "I didn't have enough energy at the end."

Still, she's close enough that, after all these years of hard work, she can practically picture herself in Beijing.

"I try not to" think about it, Liukin said. "But it really is exciting. At the same time, you can't let yourself relax too soon."

Fortunately for Johnson and Liukin, Sunday will come soon enough.