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Sacramone shows perfect form and grit in comeback bid

By Steve Keating

(Reuters) - At first glance Alicia Sacramone, America's most decorated gymnast, looks a picture of perfection posing with her back arched and muscles taut in ESPN Magazine's Body Issue.

There are no noticeable flaws in the revealing black-and-white photo but, in a sport where there are no longer perfect 10s, look closely and the scars are there from four years ago when Sacramone was exposed in a much more personal way at the Beijing Olympics.

The captain of the U.S. women's gymnastics team that was expected to strike gold in China instead returned home with silver after Sacramone fumbled her mount onto the balance beam and botched her floor routine.

Nearly four years on the mistakes cannot be airbrushed away but the chance to wash over those unpleasant images with a happy ending to her Olympic story was enough to pull Sacramone back to the gym in a bid to qualify for the 2012 London Summer Games.

"Beijing didn't go the way I planned and I would have liked to have performed a little bit better personally," Sacramone told Reuters. "After Beijing that is what stuck in my mind. I want a better Olympic finish.

"A silver medal for the team is phenomenal but as an athlete we are super competitive and we want to win."

From swimmers like Australian Ian Thorpe to wrestlers such as American Rulon Gardner, the lure of Olympic gold has proven hard to resist.

But the road back for gymnasts is perhaps one of the toughest and most heartbreaking of all.

'PROMISED LAND'

In a sport that embraces teenage pixies and fearless fresh faces, 24-year-old Sacramone is a gymnastics senior citizen, explaining part of her reason for posing nude for ESPN was to prove you do not need to be 13 or 14 years old to be a gymnast.

Sacramone's resume, which includes a U.S. record 10 world champion medals, counts for little as she battles 16-year-olds like reigning all-round world champion Jordyn Wieber and Gabrielle Douglas, nicknamed the "Flying Squirrel" for her gravity defying acrobatics, for one of five Olympic berths.

Beijing team mate Nastia Liukin, winner of the all-around gold medal at the 2008 Olympics, has also set her sights on a spot, adding more spice to the U.S. Olympic trials in June.

"It is very difficult, especially since it is two spots less than the last Olympic Games, you can take just five kids," Sacramone's longtime coach Mihai Brestyan, told Reuters. "The number is smaller and the competition is bigger.

"You have the new generation and world champions. It is very tough competition to put yourself on this team.

Drained mentally and physically, Sacramone stepped back from the sport after Beijing but found she was not yet ready to walk away from her Olympic dream.

Two years later, she returned to competition and immediately signaled she was ready to battle for gold in London by winning the vault at the 2010 world championships.

"I took some time off because I needed shoulder surgery and I just needed a break from the gym because it had been 14 years straight, never really getting a vacation," said Sacramone. "At that time I was turning 21 and felt I needed to live a little before I decide what I want to do.

"I didn't really go in with high expectations, I just wanted to see how I could do personally and then after worlds, I was like, 'OK let's give the Olympics one more go.'"

TEDIOUS REHABILITATION

Already battling tough odds, Sacramone's Olympic comeback suddenly appeared a long shot when she blew out her Achilles while preparing for last year's world championships, saying she thought she had heard the floor boards snap when it was her tendon exploding.

For athletes, Achilles injuries are usually described as career-threatening, former-England captain David Beckham denied a chance to play in the 2010 World Cup after suffering a similar injury that cast doubts about his playing future.

Sacramone returned to the United States for surgery and after some initial tears refused to throw in the towel as family, friends and sponsor Proctor & Gamble rallied around her offering encouragement and support.

After months of tedious rehabilitation, Sacramone said she has returned to the gym but the clock is ticking.

She will have only one competition, in early June at the Visa Championships in St. Louis, before entering the Olympic trials pressure cooker.

"When I was 16 trying for the Olympics I wasn't as mentally strong as I am now trying to go in for my second Games," explained Sacramone. "Age has helped me mentally, physically maybe not so much, but I'm definitely a better competitor now than I was then.

"I feel blessed to have an opportunity to try out for a second Olympics team and if it doesn't work out, hey I gave it my all."

(Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto)