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Fifteen years ago this summer, the 1996 U.S. Olympic women's gymnastics team won gold -- the first, and still only, team to win the Olympic title in women's gymnastics. Next summer, the U.S. team is once again a front-runner to win and, with two consecutive silvers in 2004 and 2008, is hoping to shed its runner-up status and match the feat of the '96 gymnasts.
The 2011 Visa National Championships, starting Wednesday in St. Paul, Minn., will be chock full of athletes trying to get closer to making the London squad. Rankings from nationals help determine who is chosen for the upcoming world championships and Pan American Games. And being on these teams -- especially the world team -- comes with a major perk: Members are usually on the short list for Olympic selection.
Here are five storylines to watch at nationals:
1. All-around rivals
If defending champion Rebecca Bross, 18, is fully recovered from last year's ankle surgery, she and Jordyn Wieber, 16, could have an exciting showdown for the overall title. Each is a former junior national champion, and this will be the first time they compete against each other at senior nationals. These two are among the best all-arounders in the world, with Wieber's higher-value Amanar vault giving her the edge in overall difficulty. Don't miss Bross' aggressive, almost-reckless style on bars and beam, and Wieber's jam-packed floor routine.
2. Olympic alumnae
Four of the six members of the 2008 Olympic team have appeared on this year's nationals roster. The most-anticipated comeback is that of uber-popular Shawn Johnson, the all-around silver medalist in Beijing. Johnson, 19, is still in the early stages of her training and probably won't compete in all four events, so don't expect her at the top of the standings just yet. Olympic teammate Alicia Sacramone, 23, should be on the leaderboard, at least in three events. Sacramone returned last year and promptly became world vault champion. She has added a floor routine to her repertoire this year and is a solid competitor on beam as well.
Chellsie Memmel, the 2005 world all-around champion, is also back at age 23 and likely will do all four events. Like Johnson, she's not up to par with the routines she has done in the past, but many of her signature skills have come back quickly. Bridget Sloan, 19, was originally listed as a competitor but has removed herself from the roster, saying she's not fully recovered from bicep surgery in February. She shouldn't be counted out for London, though. Sloan surprised many when she made the Olympic team shortly after a knee injury in 2008 and is a former world all-around champ as well, in 2009.
3. Doing it the hard way
The typical gymnastics career goes from the trick-heavy elite level, where younger, smaller athletes often have an advantage, to the simpler but more artistic routines of NCAA gymnastics. This makes the stories of Anna Li, 22, and Casey Magee, 23, all the more impressive. Li competed for UCLA, Magee at the University of Arkansas, and both are doing elite post-graduation. They're also managing to mix both styles of gymnastics into their routines. Li does one of the most difficult bar sets in the U.S., throwing release move after release move with amazing height. Magee excels on beam, artfully combining incredibly hard tumbling with equally difficult dance elements.
4. The young 'uns
Gymnasts who turn 16 by the end of the year are eligible to compete at the senior level, so each nationals brings in a new group to compete in the big leagues. One of those newcomers is Gabrielle Douglas, 15, who trains alongside Johnson. Douglas is tons of fun to watch -- especially on bars and floor -- with power to spare. Sabrina Vega, 16, has a style and presentation that tops that of most of the older gymnasts, while McKayla Maroney's tumbling and vaulting set her apart, even at age 15. One of these new kids could sneak into the top three in the standings, especially if Bross isn't at full strength.
5. Raising the bar
At last year's worlds, the U.S. had one glaring weakness on paper: the difficulty level of the team's bar routines. Bross, the top American bar worker, had a 6.2 difficulty score, while China's best, He Kexin, had a 7.2. The U.S. team can't afford this kind of disadvantage in London, so gymnasts with high-difficulty bar routines are a valuable commodity, and are in prime position to be selected for the worlds and Olympic teams. Wieber, Li and Douglas currently have the hardest bar sets in the U.S., and there is word that Bross has likely upgraded her routine as well.