CHICAGO – All eyes will be on Olympic champion Nastia Liukin at the U.S. Classic.
Martha Karolyi, however, will be keeping close watch on everybody.
Make no mistake. The national championships may be two weeks away and there's still a month until the Olympic trials, but Saturday's meet is the first step in the selection process for this summer's London Games.
"It is in the back of your mind," said Gabby Douglas, a member of the team that won the world title last year. "This is the Olympic year, and Martha's watching us and every little thing we do."
Because the format of team finals at the Olympics is so unforgiving, teams can't be picked solely by the standings at nationals and trials. Three gymnasts compete on each event in team finals and all three scores count, meaning one mistake or one low-scoring routine could be the difference between a gold medal and a consolation T-shirt. So Karolyi is already looking at everyone to see what combination of gymnasts will give her monster scores on each of the four events, and who she can count on to be consistent no matter the circumstance or the stage.
"It may just be a tune-up but it's an important competition in the selection process," said 2008 Olympian Chellsie Memmel, who will compete on balance beam as she works her way back from February shoulder surgery. "You still need to come out and do well. There's no doubt about that. You have to show up and be a competitor."
Regardless of who you are.
The Classic is the first competition since the 2009 national championships for Liukin, who announced last October that she was making a comeback. She is competing on beam, where she is the Olympic silver medalist, but plans to add uneven bars for nationals. If the Americans have a weakness it's on bars, and that just happens to be Liukin's signature event. She was the silver medalist on bars in Beijing — she and China's He Kexin actually tied, but He won on a complex tiebreaker — and even her fellow competitors stopped to watch when she did parts of her routine.
"She needs a good consistency level, good execution and the ability to perform those routines in competition conditions," said Karolyi, the national team coordinator. "That's what we're looking for. Right now this is the first step, we still have a little time. We'll see and we'll know a little bit more after we finish this competition."
Told that Liukin acknowledged having some nerves, Karolyi smiled.
"Every competition is a competition, and you feel the pressure and you know you have to do the good job," she said. "Even if you're a past Olympian or a newcomer, you will have some jitters. But the whole thing is how you can handle those, and that's why you need these rehearsals, like I would call this competition. If you successfully complete this stage, the next stage will be a little bit easier and then the trials will be even easier. That's why I was encouraging everybody, go ahead and compete."
As the gymnasts went through training Friday, Karolyi wandered the floor observing and chatting with coaches. Liukin had her full attention as did Jordyn Wieber, the reigning world champion and favorite to get the lone guaranteed Olympic spot reserved for the all-around champion after nationals and trials.
Even when Karolyi was standing halfway across the arena, the girls on uneven bars knew that not a single pirouette would go unnoticed.
"She's the only one you'll be doing bars and you'll see her out of the corner of your eye," Aly Raisman said. "Wherever she is, you can always see where she is and you can always hear her."
And if that unnerves somebody, well, Karolyi has no problem with that. Her exacting standards are known to all, and you can't argue with the results. Since she became national team coordinator in 2001, the Americans have won 59 medals at the Olympics and world championships. No other country has had more than 35. At last year's world championships alone, the Americans won the team and all-around title as well as gold on vault and bronzes on balance beam and floor exercise.
Oh, the Americans have produced the last two Olympic champions, too, in Liukin and Carly Patterson.
"You have to prove that ability and you have to maintain that ability. And you cannot maintain it by training in your own little gym," Karolyi said. "I'm part of it, and I think, yes, it's a little pressure and I'm very glad if they feel a little pressure.
"If you cannot handle this much pressure," she added, "how are you going to handle the big pressure?"
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