Nastia Liukin has never been so happy to feel nervous.
The Olympic champion returned to competition for the first time since the Beijing Games on Saturday night, and it was as if she'd never been away. She posted the second-best score on balance beam, her only event, and her 14.5 was only .1 points behind teammate Ivana Hong.
"As soon as we marched out today, that's when it really hit me: I felt like the old Nastia again," she said. "Listening to the anthem, I got butterflies in my stomach. It was a cool feeling to be back where I'm at and do what I have a passion for.
"I'm just so happy to be back in this environment. This is what I love to do."
Liukin is only the third U.S. woman to win the Olympic title, and she's been in high demand for appearances, photo shoots and commercial opportunities since she left Beijing. She loves everything she's gotten to do _ she picked up the ESPY award for female athlete of the year last week _ but the schedule has wreaked havoc on her training.
But with the national championships only three weeks away in her hometown of Dallas, Liukin did the Cover Girl Classic to get back in the competition zone.
Though she and Olympic teammate Sam Peszek, also making her return, have been on much bigger stages, both were nervous at the beginning of the night. As Liukin waited for her name to be called, she shook her hands and swung her arms.
"We tried not to put that extra pressure on ourselves, but we know people do have expectations," Liukin said. "I have to live up to the title that I have, being Olympic champion, and representing not only my parents, my home club, but also the United States.
"I guess it's a lot to have on my shoulders," she said, laughing.
While Liukin isn't where she wants to be just yet _ her dismount, for example, was watered down _ her beam routine was still impressive.
She began by placing her fingertips on the beam and pressing herself into the splits, slowly unfurling her long legs without the slightest shake or hesitation. She landed one front somersault without ever putting one of her feet on the beam, brushing it back until her leg is fully extended behind her. It's incredibly difficult _ try doing it on flat ground, let alone 4 feet in the air _ yet she makes it look effortless.
Her only major flaw was a wobble near the end of her routine.
She looked relieved when she finished, and her father and coach, Valeri, nodded his head as if to say, "OK."
Liukin also warmed up her uneven bars routine, and said it will be ready for championships. Aside from a short trip to a gymnastics camp, she plans to be in the gym until nationals.
"I know that's what makes a difference," she said. "I really, really hope that I can improve a lot on beam and be 100 percent on bars."
After she finished on beam, Liukin tried her hand at broadcasting, doing some on-floor commentary for Universal Sports. As she walked to collect her change of clothes from her mother, Anna, she slapped hands with several young girls in the audience.
"You have to start somewhere," Liukin said. "With as much of the training time I had _ or didn't have _ I'm happy with where I am."