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No guarantees at trials for US Olympic gymnasts

Jonathan Horton fell off the high bar on Day 1 of the trials.

ezra shaw/getty images

Jonathan Horton fell off the high bar on Day 1 of the trials.

SAN JOSE, Calif. — The remaining members of the Class of 2008 have a lot of things going for them: experience, maturity, leadership. Nastia Liukin, Alicia Sacramone, and Bridget Sloan, who all were on the US team that took silver in Beijing, have 21 world medals among them. If résumés mattered in making this summer’s Olympic women’s gymnastics team, they’d all be getting return trips to London.

“People say, ‘Oh, but you won the gold medal, you have to be on that team,’ ” said Liukin, who was the all-around champion and won three apparatus medals at the Games. “I wish that was how it works, but no matter what your accomplishments are, it doesn’t really help in the selection process.”

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Only the winner of the women’s trials, which begin Friday at HP Pavilion, is guaranteed to be on the team. The other four will be chosen by three selectors: national team coordinator Martha Karolyi, international elite committee chairman Steve Rybacki, and athlete representative Terin Humphrey, who won two silvers at the 2004 Olympics. What they’re most concerned with is fitting together a team that can do what no American squad ever has managed: win gold at an overseas Games.

All of last year’s global titlists are back, and three of them appear to be all but certain to make it: all-around champ Jordyn Wieber, Needham, Mass., native Aly Raisman, and Gabrielle “The Flying Squirrel” Douglas.

Also back is McKayla Maroney, the world vault queen who has been cleared to compete after suffering a concussion and a nasal fracture earlier this month at the US championships in St. Louis.

“One very important thing to us was to make sure that she didn’t end up with a psychological scar, and that’s absolutely not the case,” said Karolyi. “She performed normal, she had no second thoughts.”

The fifth spot figures to be a scramble among the three Beijing veterans, world teamer Sabrina Vega, 15-year-old Kyla Ross, and Elizabeth Price, whom some gymnastics insiders have dubbed a dark horse.

“Sometimes you get stuck with one little [puzzle] piece,” said Karolyi. “You have to see all the situations: what if I do this move, what if I do that move? That’s when it can get a little bit complicated. Usually when you select the team, it always happens for the last spot.”

With no room for error under the three-up, three-count format, the selectors need a dependable trio on all four events. The Americans are the best on the planet in vault. They’re solid on floor, where Raisman is a world medalist. They’re steady on beam, where Wieber made last year’s podium. Where they can use help is on uneven bars.

If Liukin were at the same level she was four years ago, when she won silver on the event, she’d be an obvious specialist pick. But her damaged right shoulder has made her an iffy commodity. Sacramone doesn’t do bars, but her fast-forward recovery from the Achilles’ tendon that she tore before the world meet has put her in the mix on vault and beam.

“I think leadership is important,” said Sacramone, who was the squad’s Big Sister in 2008. “Is it enough to get somebody a spot? I don’t think so. I think you have to have the total package and be what they need. If I’m that person, great. If not, then I hope the team does the best they can out there.”

The men, the reigning world bronze medalists, have a shorter list of bemedaled candidates: Jonathan Horton, who had foot surgery last year, is the only Beijing vet. But they have a more complex matrix, with only five qualifiers to cover six events. The two athletes with the top combined all-around scores from nationals and trials are guaranteed spots, provided that they’re among the top three in three events. The selectors decide the other three Olympians.

When competition began here Thursday afternoon, John Orozco, the Bronx native whom his colleagues call “Silent Ninja,” and Danell Leyva, the Cuban-born global parallel bars titlist, were in the lead based on the nationals results. But after both of them slipped up — Leyva stepping out of bounds on vault and floor and Orozco botching his vault landing — Michigan undergrad Sam Mikulak won the session and ended up with an overall score of 274.650, tightening the chase behind Leyva (276.500) and Orozco (275.550).

“There’s always something that might happen that shocks everyone, just like I surprised myself at USAs,” observed Orozco, who dethroned Leyva in St. Louis but is fighting a cold here.

Thursday’s shocker was seeing Horton, the Olympic silver medalist on the high bar, lose his grip and essentially fall out of contention for an automatic spot.

“I don’t think it’s realistic to catch Danell and John, they’re so far ahead,” he acknowledged. “But it is realistic to finish well and for the committee to go, we need him.”

John Powers can be reached at jpowers@globe.com.
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