The trials and the glories

Six athletes are ready for brutal Olympic trials

Updated: June 20, 2012, 2:36 PM ET
By Alyssa Roenigk | ESPN The Magazine

Nastia LiukinStew Milne/US PresswireNastia Lukin will try to be the one of the first reigining individual all-around Olympic gold medalists to return to the Olympics.

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TO WIN IT IN LONDON, you have to be in it -- that is, survive the brutal U.S. Olympic trials in gymnastics, track and field and swimming and land a spot on the team. Here are six athletes who are poised to make a dramatic statement when their trials kick off in late June.


HURTLING BACK
Nastia Liukin, 22
Liukin wants to be the first reigning individual all-around gold medalist to return to the Olympics since Nadia Comaneci in 1980. "I hope I can play a role to help the team," Liukin says. "Past accomplishments don't matter. All that matters is how you perform today." So far, so good -- Liukin finished third on the balance beam at the Secret U.S. Classic in May, her first competition since 2009.

RUNNING FREE OF PAIN
Tyson Gay, 29
"I didn't know there was this much bad luck in the world," says the former 100-meter world champ, the only man since 2008 to beat Usain Bolt. Last July, Gay had arthroscopic surgery to fix a torn labrum in his right hip -- the most recent in a series of injuries that began in 2008 with a strained left hamstring. "It's not going to be easy," he says, "but that just makes the story sweeter."

[+] EnlargeBrendan Hansen
Tami Chappell/ReutersBrendan Hansen is back after a short retirement.

SWIMMING EASY
Brendan Hansen, 30
Hansen once held the world records in the 100- and 200-meter breaststroke. But after not making the team in the 200 and finishing fourth in the 100 in Beijing, Hansen retired from competitive swimming. After prodding from his wife, he's back. Last year, Hansen swept the 100 and 200 breaststroke at both the summer and winter nationals. Says Hansen, "This time, there's no pressure."

HURTLING INTO VIEW
Gabrielle Douglas, 16
Two years ago, the Virginian moved all the way to Iowa to train with Liang Chow, coach of Shawn Johnson, winner of four Olympic medals in 2008. "Shawn's a mentor," says Douglas, whose skill on the uneven bars got her the nickname Flying Squirrel. Douglas, though, isn't just a specialist. As an alternate, she earned the highest score (61.299) in the all-around at the AT&T American Cup in March.

RUNNING FREE OF PEDs
Justin Gatlin, 30
In 2004, he won gold in the 100-meter and was the world's fastest man. In 2006, he tested positive for elevated testosterone and was hit with a four-year ban. Now he's fighting to come back. "I figured if I can get my weight and confidence back, I could compete with the best," he says. He's done all of the above, dropping to his Athens weight of 183, then running 9.87 to beat Jamaican Asafa Powell in May.

SWIMMING HEALTHY
Eric Shanteau, 28
One week before the 2008 U.S. Olympic trials, Shanteau was diagnosed with testicular cancer. He delayed treatment and made the team in the 200-meter breaststroke but lost in the semifinals. Now he's cancer-free and is the American record holder in the 100 and 200 breaststroke. "It will mean a lot to make the Olympic team," he says. "But I'm not letting myself look past the trials."

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Alyssa Roenigk

ESPN The Magazine senior writer
Alyssa Roenigk is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com whose assignments covering action sports, Olympics and football have taken her to six continents and caused her to commit countless acts of recklessness. In 2012, she joined the X Games TV broadcast team and ordered additional pages for her passport. Follow her on Twitter at @espn_alyssa.