Nastia Liukin's hopes of rallying for an Olympic roster spot were effectively extinguished Sunday night during the final day of U.S. Olympic Gymnastics Team Trials in San Jose, Calif. The five-time Summer Games medalist crashed to the mat during a pivotal routine on bars, ensuring that she will not complete her recent comeback attempt with a trip to London.
Liukin, who basked in the glory of Olympic fame after being crowned the individual all-around champion at the 2008 Beijing Games, is no longer the face of American gymnastics. The endorsements, accolades and accomplishments have set her up nicely for a post-Olympic career, but her tumble from the top of the sport was a tough moment to watch.
Although the writing was on the wall when it came to Liukin's unsteady standing with Team USA, some prognosticators believed she could sneak onto the squad with a sterling uneven bar performance on Sunday night. After all, this is an event that she earned a silver medal in during the 2008 Olympics.
In the end, it simply wasn't meant to be for the 22-year-old who spent several months battling shoulder injuries since deciding to end a two-year sabbatical from the sport last summer.
Liukin's fate was sealed midway through the set on bars, as she failed to find a grip on the high bar and plummeted to the ground face-first in front of a stunned national television audience. As the proud performer picked herself up off the mat, the look on Liukin's face said it all.
The fairy tale was over.
However, her final routine was far from finished.
Liukin collected herself, covered her hands in chalk and completed the last set of her acclaimed U.S. gymnastics career.
The performance earned Liukin a score of a 13.950, but that hardly seemed to matter. A packed crowd at HP Pavilion rose to their feet and cheered as she strutted off the mat.
"I wasn't really expecting that," Liukin told NBC reporter Andrea Joyce. "I kind of just had tears in my eyes seeing 12,000-15,000 people on their feet cheering for me. It was an emotional, but amazing, way to end my career."
Liukin wasn't likely to earn a roster spot even if she made it through the set unscathed. In gymnastics, even the greats have incredibly short shelf lives.
The four-year gap between Summer Games doesn't bode well for second appearances. In fact, no defending Olympic champion has returned to participate in the following games since 1980.
As the reality of her sudden retirement set in, Liukin appeared to be at peace with the situation.
"Of course I wish I could have done that bar routine and proven to everybody that I am capable of doing it," Liukin admitted to Joyce in front of a national television audience. "But I understand that my time is up and I'm so excited to cheer these girls on."
Despite the rough ending to her illustrious Olympic run, Liukin harbors no regrets for putting it all on the line Sunday night, even when naysayers suggested that she make an early exit.
"Going into today, I had a little bit of a different mindset," Liukin said. "There were many times when people asked if maybe I just wanted to scratch and call it quits but that's not the kind of person I am. I'm a fighter and I'm going to do what ever I set out to do. And that was to compete today."
As the five new faces of U.S. Gymnastics prepare to embark on their first Olympic experience, let Liukin's short-lived stardom serve as a lesson. In a sport dominated by teenagers, opportunities are fleeting.
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