Commentary

Top women gymnasts to watch at U.S. Olympic trials

Updated: June 19, 2008, 11:25 AM ET
By Alyssa Roenigk | ESPN The Magazine

Not since the Magnificent Seven has the United States laid claim to such a strong and exciting crop of female gymnasts. Which means this weekend's Olympic trials at Philadelphia's Wachovia Center could very well be the first step in selecting Olympic gold medalists.

Here are five women we think you'll be talking about come August.

[+] EnlargeChellsie Memmel
Elsa/Getty ImagesChellsie Memmel is hoping past injuries won't get in the way of trying to earn a trip to Beijing.

Shawn Johnson
Age: 16
Coached by: Liang Chow
Home gym: Chow's Dance and Gymnastics (Des Moines, Iowa)
Strongest events: Floor, balance beam
Achilles' heel: Uneven bars

Breakdown: Johnson, the 2007 and 2008 national champion and reigning world champ, has more pressure on her 4-foot-9 frame than any U.S. gymnast heading into Beijing. The trials, however, are a different story. Provided she remains healthy, Johnson is a lock for the U.S. team, so pressure is off this weekend. Her main focus: staying healthy, sticking her routines and perfecting a new floor program she debuted at the Visa Nationals in Boston on June 5, when she won both the all-around and floor exercise. Johnson's also won nearly every major event she's entered since 2007, dropping only the Tyson American Cup title to Nastia Liukin -- her only real U.S. competition in the all-around -- in March.

Nastia Liukin
Age: 18
Coached by: Valeri Liukin (her father)
Home gym: World Olympics Gymnastics Academy (Plano, Texas)
Strongest events: Uneven bars, balance beam
Achilles' heel: Vault

Breakdown: The daughter of two former Soviet gymnastic champions, Liukin is a seamless blend of mom and dad. She performs with an artistic grace rarely seen in today's era of power gymnastics, a throw back to mom Ana Kotchneva's rhythmic gymnastics background (she was the 1987 world champion). Liukin's work ethic and mental tenacity are a reflection of her coach and father, 1988 Olympic gold medalist Valerie Liukin. Little Liukin's beam and bar routines are some of the most difficult in the world, and a real treat to watch. At the Visa Nationals, she received the highest score by a U.S. gymnast under the new scoring system -- a 17.05 on uneven bars. Like Johnson, Liukin is a lock for the team, but would like to prove she can win a major all-around title -- and not just when Johnson falls, like she did at the Tyson Cup.

Chellsie Memmel
Age: 19 (she turns 20 on June 23, the Monday after the trials)
Coached by: Andy Memmel (her father)
Home gym: M&M Gymnastics (New Berlin, Wis.)
Strongest events: Balance beam, uneven bars
Achilles' heel: Vault

Breakdown: One of the most experienced athletes in the field, Memmel has been plagued with injuries since 2004, when she was an alternate on the U.S. Olympic team. She's battled shoulder and ankle injuries since 2006, but proved she's in top form once again by taking third in the all-around at the Visa Nationals. "It was heartbreaking for her to be injured before 2004," said Shannon Miller, the most decorated gymnast in U.S. history. "She was a shoo-in for the team. But now the fire is back in her eyes and that's so great to see." Memmel's balance beam and bar routines could help the U.S. reclaim team gold (they took silver to Romania in 2004), and her international clout and Olympic experience are a much-needed addition to the team. Memmel's only remaining obstacle is proving her body is indeed as strong as her mind.

Alicia Sacramone
Age: 20
Coached by: Mihai Brestyan
Home gym: Brestyan's American Gymnastics (Burlington, Mass.)
Strongest events: Vault, floor, beam
Achilles' heel: Uneven bars

Breakdown: Unarguably the best vaulter on the U.S. team, Sacramone would not only be a huge point-grabber in the team competition in Beijing, but she could also take a medal in the event. She should take gold in Philadelphia. Her weakness on uneven bars makes Sacramone an unlikely contender for the all-around competition. But her strength in the floor exercise and on beam makes her an attractive pick for the U.S team, which team coordinator Marta Karolyi will finalize at the team camp in July. The 2006-07 team captain, Sacramone has the experience of being on three world teams and has two gold medals to show for it. She is also a fiery motivator, a tell-it-like-it-is teammate and, as Miller said, "She brings spunk."

Samantha Peszek
Age: 16
Coached by: Peter Zhao
Home gym: DeVeau's School of Gymnastics (Fishers, Ind.)
Strongest events: Floor, vault
Achilles' heel: Uneven bars

Breakdown: In Philadelphia, Peszek will be looking to cement herself as a three or four pick, which means she will pull out all the stops to prove to Karolyi she belongs on this team. And she does. Although Peszek does not receive the media attention of high-profile team members Johnson and Liukin, she does receive the scores. Peszek took third in the all-around at the Tyson American Cup and fourth at nationals and was a member of the 2007 world championship team. Her international credibility (she competed in five international events in 2005 and won seven medals) will be important to Karolyi, who is unlikely to select an athlete who has not competed in high-level international competition.

How the team is selected

The top two women in the all-around competition will automatically be named to the team. The remainder of the squad (four additional women, plus alternates) will be named by Karolyi at a team camp on July 16-20.

Alyssa Roenigk is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.

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.

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