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Liukin Slowed in Rise to the Top

Special to The Times

Nastia Liukin is supposed to be the next big thing among U.S. athletes in Olympic sports, no matter that she is just the next little young woman to become a star gymnast.

She hasn’t made it yet, but the problem isn’t her size -- 5 feet 1, about 90 pounds. It is the things big and little that have conspired to keep Liukin from gaining her expected stature as the world’s best female gymnast.

In the all-around competition at last year’s World Gymnastics Championships, a flawed landing on the vault left heavily favored Liukin second by one-thousandth of a point to teammate Chellsie Memmel.

This year, a flawed landing on a trampoline in practice left Liukin with an ankle injury that has severely curtailed her participation in the world meet this week at Aarhus, Denmark.

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Liukin, 16, of Plano, Texas, is not competing in the all-around, having limited her training to one event, the uneven bars, after she rolled her right ankle Oct. 1.

Marta Karolyi, U.S. women’s coach, selected Liukin, all-around national champion the last two years, for the worlds because Karolyi figured Liukin could make a big difference in the team event, even doing nothing but bars. Liukin is reigning world champion on the apparatus.

Liukin made Karolyi look good when the women’s competition began with preliminaries Monday. Despite a small hop on her landing, she posted the highest score on bars and the U.S. women took a commanding lead over Romania.

“Everybody has a little bit that is hurting, and you just have to live with it,” Liukin said. “My goal was to help out the team to make it to the final. It definitely was not my best.”

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Although preliminaries continue today, the United States is all but assured of a place in Wednesday’s final and Liukin of a place in the apparatus final Friday. Only two other strong teams, Russia and China, have yet to compete in preliminaries.

“It is my first time not doing all four apparatus,” Liukin said. “I am still a little bit disappointed. But you see things from a different perspective when you are watching your teammates. First priority is the team.”

Memmel, 18, of West Allis, Wis., has struggled with a shoulder injury and managed a fourth-place finish in the all-around at the U.S. championships.

Saying the shoulder had completely healed, Memmel was back on form Monday, leading in the all-around preliminaries, although she was not first on any apparatus. The all-around final is Thursday.

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U.S. women dominated the 2005 worlds, which did not include team competition, winning four of the five events and nine of the 15 medals.

With a sound Liukin, that might have happened again, especially given the decline of traditional powers Romania and Russia, which won a single bronze medal between them last year.

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Philip Hersh covers the Olympics for The Times and the Chicago Tribune.

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