ST. LOUIS -- Kyla Ross, a 15-year-old first-year senior gymnast from Aliso Viejo and a freshman at Aliso Niguel High, stood first overall after three of four rotations Friday night at the first of two rounds of the Visa Classic U.S. national gymnastics championship at Chaifetz Arena on the campus of St. Louis University.
The feisty Ross was disappointed that the women's team coordinator, Martha Karolyi, had asked her to do an easier vault than the one she had been practicing and she was mad at herself that on her final rotation -- a punchy floor exercise danced to music from "Phantom of the Opera" -- Ross had stepped out of bounds on her first tumbling pass, something she doesn't do often in practice at Gym-Max in Costa Mesa.
Ross had been given a television hold for several minutes before she started off on floor, something that clearly made her a little skittish. But that's part of the learning process for the youngsters competing at a first big meet.
Overall, Ross was fourth behind defending world all-around champion Jordyn Wieber of Michigan, a steady 16-year-old whose coach, John Geddert, said his pupil is nowhere near peaked for what will happen in two weeks, the Gymnastics Olympic trials in San Jose June 28-July 1, and that the bobbles she had on the balance beam and the unsteady vault that was landed out of bounds will be cleaned up by then.
Wieber and Gabby Douglas, a bubbly crowd-pleaser who has the nickname "flying squirrel," rose to the occasion by consistently performing well, with each finishing no lower than fifth on any of the four apparatuses. Douglass earned a second to Ross on the uneven bars, a piece of equipment on which the U.S. has historically not done well.
Alexandra Raisman, with a mature floor exercise that features confident dance moves and three tumbling passes that made the floor bounce with the strength of her landings, won that apparatus but she had a bad uneven bars routine.
Not as bad as the one done by reigning Olympic all-around champion Nastia Liukin.
Liukin, doing her first competitive bars since the Bejing Olympics, was unsteady throughout and didn't have a landing other than to fly off the bars. Her score of 13.150 was the lowest of all 21 girls who competed in the event and afterward she said it was what she expected.
"I've only put this routine together in a week," she said. "Martha knows what I can do. After nationals, I'll have two weeks to go back and put the whole routine together."
Her father and coach, Valeri, said the shaky performance was what he expected. "We have no landing yet," he said. "It hasn't been enough time. The first thing is to not get her hurt and she won't do a landing Sunday in the finals. But by the time trials arrive, Nastia will have a full routine."
Only one spot is guaranteed on the five-woman team, whoever emerges as winner after two rounds of nationals and two rounds of trials and that would seem to be a two-woman race between Wieber and Dougas right now.
Raisman's steadiness, even with a mistake on the uneven that left her tied for 11th on that apparatus and Ross' step off the mat that left her 10th in floor exercise, seem not enough to keep them off the squad.
It would appear all-arounder Sarah Finnegan of Missouri and Laguna Niguel's McKayla Maroney, who was, by far, the best vaulter Friday and is the defending world vault champion, each need to clean up their floor exercises. In particular Maroney, of whom women's team coordinator Martha Karolyi said specifically she would like to see do better on floor, only finished fifth. Maroney also said she would like to do a more confident uneven bars routine. Maroney swayed and slipped and was lucky not to fall and later said she had trouble with new grips. She said she expected much higher scores Sunday.
After Sunday's nationals finals, the top eight all-arounders automatically advance to the Olympic trials June 28-July 1. The women's selection committee, whose main voice is Karolyi, has the discretion to take as many of the other 23 competitors here as is deemed necessary. Liukin's coach and father, Valeri, said Karolyi has told him Nastia will be at trials where she is expected to have fully put together an uneven bars routine.
It is expected that Karolyi will give Liukin all the time she needs and also bring another 2008 veteran, Alicia Sacramone, who is still getting into shape after an Achilles' injury last year and who finished tied for second on beam with a confident job and a score of 15.200 and seventh on vault. The other returner from 2008, Bridget Sloan, finished 10th all-around and only her fifth on unevens gives a hint that she is moving in the right direction.
Former UCLA gymnast and uneven specialist Anni Li only finished fourth on her best event with a score 15.150 and 22nd on the beam, where she took a fall and seems an unlikely invite to San Jose.
Ross was all smiles at the end, along with Sacramone. Most of the other girls were grim-faced and serious. Ross said she could hardly wait to get back to practice Saturday and to show better Sunday and that she hoped to talk Karolyi into letting her do her more difficult vault Sunday. "And I'm going to stay on the floor this time," said Ross, who dances and tumbles to popular music from "Phantom of the Opera."
Wieber's coach John Geddert said he was satisfied with her overall score of 60.650, the same as Douglas received. He expected she would not have so many bobbles on her beam routine by trials and that she would be landing her vault inbounds by San Jose. "We're not peaked yet," he said. "We shouldn't be. That's not the point."
Douglas, coached by Liang Chow, Shawn Johnson's former mentor, said she too expects a more confident beam performance Sunday.