Meet the U.S. gymnastics world team
TOKYO -- More than medals are at stake for the U.S. women's team at this year's world gymnastics championships, which start Friday in Tokyo. Worlds is the most important gymnastics meet there is other than the Olympics and will serve as an indicator of who will lead the charge next year in London.
The U.S. team is a mix of rookies and veterans, and is looking to win the team title it last earned in 2007. But they've had a rough go of it in Tokyo, and two members -- Alicia Sacramone and Anna Li -- may be out with injuries before the meet even begins. Also in the way will be defending world champion Russia, defending Olympic gold medalist China and Romania, a team that dominated during the late '90s and is finally back up to its former level.
Here is a look at the eight athletes on the American squad:
Jordyn Wieber (DeWitt, Mich.)
Remember the name. Wieber, who won her first U.S. championships last month in Minnesota, heads to Tokyo as the favorite to win the world all-around title. The powerful 16-year-old, who has drawn comparisons to Olympic gold medalists Shawn Johnson and Carly Patterson, has few weaknesses and no shortage of mental toughness.
Because she is such a good all-around gymnast, Wieber is likely to be the only American to compete in all four events in both team prelims and team finals. The pressure of doing this is intense, especially in the team finals format, in which every score counts. And all this happens before Wieber gets to take a shot at the individual all-around title. Wieber's focus is one of her best attributes, say her coaches, so she'll need to rely on that mental strength to get through the grueling schedule.
McKayla Maroney (Laguna Niguel, Calif.)
It was Maroney's love of Tarzan, coupled with the fact that she was running around on all fours, that led her mother to enroll her in a gymnastics class when Maroney was only 2. The 16-year-old, now ranked No. 2 in the U.S., might not look like a power gymnast, but don't be fooled by her slender physique -- she does the hardest vault in the world better than anyone else on the planet.
Although Maroney is likely to help most on vault and floor in the team competition, we're also anticipating a showdown between her and reigning world vault champion Sacramone in the event finals.
Alexandra Raisman (Needham, Mass.)
In her second year on the senior international scene, Raisman has become a rock for Team USA. Like her training partner Sacramone, Raisman is best on floor and vault, but she also is skilled on balance beam.
While she struggles on uneven bars, the 17-year-old Raisman has demonstrated that when she hits her routines, she hangs with the best in the world. Case in point: Raisman surprised many by finishing third in the preliminary round at last year's worlds. After 2012, Raisman plans to head to the University of Florida, where she will join a very talented Gators team and compete for NCAA titles.
Gabrielle Douglas (Virginia Beach, Va.)
Late last year, the 15-year-old Douglas left her home in Virginia Beach, Va., to train with Shawn Johnson and coach Liang Chow in Iowa. The move appears to have worked for Douglas, who was named to the world team despite a rocky showing at the U.S. championships.
Having Douglas' bar routine in the lineup makes a real difference for the team, which will be depending on three high scores in the event in team finals. Douglas isn't the only member of her family currently away from home -- her father is serving his third tour of duty in Iraq, and he follows all her performances online.
Sabrina Vega (Carmel, N.Y.)
This has been a year of growth for the 16-year-old Vega, who made the jump to the senior level this season and promptly recorded top-five finishes in the all-around at the CoverGirl Classic and U.S. championships.
The always-elegant Vega is likely to be most useful to the U.S. team on her favorite event, beam, although one of her strengths is that she could contribute in any event the team needs. Vega also is well known for her floor routine, which showcases signature choreography and her flair for dance. She's coached by Nadia Comaneci's teammate, 1976 Olympian Teodora Ungureanu, who also is remembered for exceptional floor performances.
Alicia Sacramone (Winchester, Mass.): May be out with injury
At 23, Sacramone is older than most top gymnasts, but since coming out of retirement in 2010, the Massachusetts native has brought new meaning to the term "golden years." Her comeback after Olympic disappointment in Beijing culminated in the world title on vault last year.
This year, Sacramone has been working on more difficult variations of her vaults. She began competing on floor again, making her an even more valuable asset to the U.S. team. Also beneficial is her vast experience -- Tokyo will be her fifth world championships.
Sacramone may be out of the meet, though. On Thursday she hurt her Achilles tendon in practice, and she's off the roster for prelims. The severity of the injury is still unknown at this point, so it's possible she could be back in time for team finals on Tuesday.
Anna Li (Naperville, Ill.): Alternate
Li is experiencing the life cycle of a gymnast, but backward. Usually, gymnasts compete internationally, then go on to college. But not Li. A member of the UCLA team that won the NCAA title in 2010, the 23-year-old Li spent her college years refining her skills and adding new ones. At the same time, the daughter of two Chinese Olympic gymnasts gained a reputation as one of the best on uneven bars, the U.S.'s weakest event.
When she made the world team in September, it seemed Li's story couldn't get any better. But now she's been named an alternate, due to a strained abdominal muscle. It hurts Team USA as well. Her bar score will be sorely missed in team finals, and the Americans don't have another strong bar worker to fill in for her.
Shawn Johnson (West Des Moines, Iowa): Alternate
The 2008 Olympic beam champion's hopes of competing at this year's worlds ended when she was named the team's non-traveling alternate, but Johnson, 19, has made it clear she's really gunning for London.
Johnson competed this summer for the first time since the 2008 Olympics, and "Dancing With The Stars" made her a household name. Although slightly rough around the edges at first, with every routine she has looked more like the old Shawn. Despite two injuries on the American team, it's too late to fly Johnson to Japan to fill in. She will stay in the U.S. and train for the Pan American Games in late October. It will be her first international meet since 2008, and she'll be the leader of the U.S. team there, since the worlds competitors will not go to Pan Ams.